Now Entering Sleepopolis

“Ready for bed?” the sign asked, cheekily. It was 2 p.m. on a Saturday, but suddenly, I figured I was. I had followed the signs that exclaimed “Sensational in bed!” and “An all-night romp!” around a corner in downtown New York City, all the way into the Dreamery—the first brick-and-mortar store from online mattress retailer Casper.

The Noho space was like a tiny, twilit Ikea. Pastel-hued huts were arranged like a village. Rays of (artificial) light refracted through slats in their ceilings. Bedside lamps emitted soft glows. Palm-tree-shaped clouds floated up the walls. Flamingo slippers and succulents framed beds piled high with blue duvets. “Lie down wherever,” a rep told me. I did. Sensational.

Casper opened in 2014 with a business model built to disrupt the stodgy old mattress industry and get younger people to spring for brand-new bedding. Unlike the sleeping slabs of yore, Casper’s models—like those of rivals like Allswell’s and Leesa’s and Saatva’s—are ordered online, folded up neatly in a box, and sent to your door. If you decide you don’t like your mattress, you can mail it back and get another one within a 100-day in-home trial period. This innovative feature (which is not always as frictionless as promised) was built to bring the online buyers of the Amazon generation into the heretofore web-proof mattress market: Suddenly, you could get a factory-fresh mattress into your first apartment with only a click, rather than having to schlep out and back from some suburban strip mall in a borrowed car with a new Pillow-Top Twin lashed to the roof. Casper’s sales soon expanded to $600 million in revenue.

The U.S. spends the most on mattresses of any nation in the world, a market expected to generate revenue of over $14 billion this year. Those numbers are projected to grow as American Millennials enter their prime nesting years, and, as is typical, replace their mattresses every 8.9 years or sooner. To feed our bed addiction, the country is blanketed by more than 9,000 mattress stores, most owned by a few major brands like Mattress Firm, Bedding Experts, and Sleepy’s. Their outlets cluster in agglomerations in and around most American cities: industry giant Mattress Firm once said it aimed to erect one store for every 50,000 people in certain popular markets. Their business model is simple and effective. The no-frills store overheads are low, their products are sold with hearty markups, and many employees are paid on commission.

But there are signs that the overstuffed mattress market is due for some deflation. In a December earnings call, Mattress Firm’s now-CEO told investors that the company would be shuttering 200 of its nearly 3,500 stores by 2019. By August, it was reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, in what has become a familiar retail theme, a new guard was rising to take an old guard’s place. This month, Casper announced plans to open 200 stores across the U.S. in the next three years. The Casper overlords are betting that the actual feeling of sinking into a fluffy white Casper mattress will be an even better sell than the slogans the company has already splashed across what seems like every New York City subway and spliced into what seems like every cool podcast. “We knew a lot of customers want to lay on it before they buy,” the CEO of Casper, Philip Krim, told the Chicago Tribune.

In other words, after working so hard to disrupt the model, Casper is going to co-opt it. Their move IRL mirrors ones by web-first brands like Warby Parker, the online vendor of hip eyeglasses that now has physical stores in more than 70 locations around the country, where it sells print copies of N+1 (and a way of life) alongside chunky frames.

Uh, yeah! (Sarah Holder/CityLab)

But, as Casper and its rivals know, the object they’re peddling possesses certain mysterious intangibles that make it distinct from other household goods. Our relationship to the mattress has always been an intimate and curiously consequential one. In the 1600s, French poet Isaac de Benserade wrote:

In bed we laugh, in bed we cry;
And, born in bed, in bed we die.
The near approach a bed may show
Of human bliss to human woe.

Now, Casper, is learning that just mailing the things to Millennials in boxes isn’t enough. They will have to play the mattress game.

***

Factory-made mattresses as we know them today—Sleep-Numbered; Tempur Pedic; coil springed—are a relatively modern convenience. They’re an Industrial Revolution amenity; like cars and refrigerators, they’re big-ticket household purchases that most households didn’t get to purchase for centuries.

Raised sleeping structures didn’t gain popularity until the Neolithic era, when piles of leaves or straw acted as the first sorts of bedding. By 3,600 BC, Persians were filling goatskins with water to construct makeshift waterbeds. Elevating sleepers above the dirty and damp earth—farther from the underworld, and bugs—was the mattress’ main role. Straw, wool and comfort would come later. In the Renaissance, you could order up a bed stuffed with pea shucks or feathers inside velvet or brocade, if you had the money.

“Certainly from the lower middle class up to the aristocracy, one’s bed was the most expensive article of furniture,” said A. Roger Ekirch, a history professor at Virginia Tech and author of the definitive history of human behavior after sunset, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. The bed, and what was on it, represented a major investment: “In some middle-class homes, it would represent up to one third the value of all domestic assets.”

The quality of the mattress, then as now, was a “function of social prestige.” Having your own bed was a luxury; in poor households, whole families crowded together on one mattress. Pillows were reserved for women in childbirth—often, heads rested on rounded logs instead.

But as even working-class homes grew , “so they know when they go to shop for a mattress they will remember where they are located.”

The cheap-to-run stores—often planted next to big-box retailers in high-traffic areas—function in part as billboards for the brand. In a sense, actual mattress-selling is almost secondary to the broader mission: simply making people think about mattresses.

***

On Casper’s first day of operation on April 22, 2014, someone knocked on the door of their 1,800 square foot Noho loft. It was a potential customer, there to try out the mattresses Casper claimed to be selling. “We were like, ‘Uh oh,’” Krim, Casper’s CEO, told me.

They had only really thought through the online part. He scrambled, converting their conference room into a bedroom and plopping a mattress down. After that, almost every day, he said, customers would come in to try it.

This came as some surprise. “When we first launched the business, we thought we were building a mattress for Millenials,” said Krim. That meant a creating a sleek online presence, and not much else. “But that hasn’t been our sweet spot for a long time.” The young, urban, podcast-listening professionals do still want their mattresses in a box, delivered. But Krim says “brand awareness” notwithstanding, people wander into one of the 20 Casper stores in cities across North America (19 in the U.S., and one in Toronto), and they often walk out with a mattress.

“Something we got wrong when we launched the retail stores was we didn’t think customers would want to take home products,” he said, so they didn’t stock the store with enough inventory. Today, almost half of customers who go to the store buy them on-site.

So how does Krim feel about the dead-mall dystopia that’s unfolding in parallel to Casper’s rise? It’s a coincidence, he says. It speaks to the power of disruption, he also says, later.

The cities where Casper has planted stores so far are mostly the usual suspects: youth-happy metros like San Francisco, New York, Miami, and Chicago. But they’re not parked out by the beltway in strip malls next to Sleepy’s, generally; or sandwiched next to an empty Macy’s in dying shopping centers. They’re located in highly trafficked suburban malls “next to LuluLemons and Peletons and Tesla stores,” a svelte trio of brands that Krim mentioned as Casper’s peers more than once. Or they’re packed in high-density downtown shopping districts, like Noho, around the corner from CB2s and Urban Outfitters.

“It’s not that retail is shrinking,” Krim said. “What you’re seeing is a tale of two cities—the haves and have-nots. The have-nots are the folks who have too much real estate, who never tapped into a digital presence or developed a digital strategy, and who continue to try to look at their business as a transactional one where they have to get as much money and as much margins as possible.”

The haves? Places like Casper. The stores are “zero-pressure environments” without commission-paid sales people, Casper cofounder and chief operating officer Neil Parikh told Business Insider. They’re oases, with napping pods available in the back to rent for $25 an hour and on-site “sleep experts” to offer counseling to insomniacs.

Here, Casper has figured something important out when it comes to selling mattresses, by putting sleep itself at the center of the brand promise. “The industry for decades has spent a lot of money—billions of dollars—educating consumers and pushing consumers to come into a retail store to lay on a mattress,” Krim told me. “We started Casper and said this from the start: The only way to know if a mattress is right for you is to sleep on it.”

Preferably in your home, on one of his company’s $600 mattresses, or in $25 increments for a nap in the nearest Casper store. “This is a secular shift in the world, where we think sleep is becoming the third pillar of wellness,” said Krim. “Customers want to interact with brands and have a deep understanding of the products that influence sleep.”

Indeed, Casper’s efforts to become a dominant player in the sleep industrial complex—sorry, the third pillar of wellness—have included publishing a now-shuttered sleep-focused website called Van Winkle’s and a quarterly print magazine called Woolly. These Casper-branded platforms join books like Thrive, by sleep evangelist Ariana Huffington, to help you feel guilty for not sleeping more. The dawn of the self-care century has made sleeping feel important.

But the mattress has always been so much more than a space for sleep. “It’s where most people, after all, were conceived and born; where they lay convalescing from illness, made love, and where they died,” said Ekirch of the world’s historical obsession with the bed.

Today, though, that obsession has evolved. In a time when radical productivity is encouraged, and sleep becomes ever more elusive, our beds—and the time we spend in them—has never been more valuable. “Even someone my age sometimes finds himself on his laptop until 2 in the morning,” said Ekirch. “And the less time we allot to sleep, the more demanding we become that it be perfect. That’s what we do to cope with our modern, high wattage, burn-the-candle-at-both-ends lifestyle. ”

For me, sleep perfection will have to wait a little longer: I’ll settle for a mattress that lets me fall asleep on my side or my back, and that cost me $180, brand-new. Judging by how often my peers and I are moving, I’ll probably have to buy another one soon enough.

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