Like night-club hypnotists, e-commerce brands like Casper and Endy have persuaded consumers to perform an unthinkable act — order a mattress online, sight unseen, despite it being where they will spend a third of their lives for years to come – and turned another industry on its head. Raise venture capital. Cut out the middle man. If the internet can disrupt the mattress business, I guess nobody is safe. Boom. Disruption. Is there anything the internet can’t do?
It is at this point that the conventions of punditry require me to invoke digital transformation — the ‘winter is coming’ of modern marketing — as the essential destiny of every business. But while that may be true, I’m not so sure that’s what we should take away from this latest case study. No, rather than rushing to double down on IT infrastructure, we should maybe pause and consider the possibility that something less sexy, but much more transformative and permanent, is happening, and not just to retailers.
It’s not a new idea to order something large and expensive delivered based on nothing but a picture and breathless prose. A hundred years ago, mail order catalogues were selling cars that way, and pre-fabricated houses would soon follow, along with chickens to adorn the yard. The fact that the user interface was made of paper was beside the point. Nor was it inherently beneficial; the benefit of catalogue shopping, in fact, lay in what people didn’t have to do. We can look back at mail order titans and be appalled at their dominance, but this used to be a big, empty continent. Freedom of choice is a lot less empowering when you have to hitch up a wagon and ride for two days to get it.
If you live in one of Canada’s increasingly congested cities, you can probably sympathize. More and more, people are judging the value of the products they buy against not one, but two currencies: money, and the effort it’s going to take to get the damned things home. It’s hard enough, especially for car-less Millennials, to transport groceries and beer from the mall to their cramped condos. Make it a mattress, and it’s easy to understand why resilient young urbanites would rather hang on to a lumpy futon a little longer than be that person with the Posturepedic lashed to the roof of a Zipcar. Sometimes, discomfort is the lesser of evils.
And that’s really what’s going on here. It’s not as simple as the internet making things easier, or as obvious as the whizbangery of shopping on your iPad. People surely realize that suitability is a gamble when they buy a mattress online. It’s when they discount that risk for simplicity that the deal is sealed.
The real disruption has been to the calculus of value. Now, instead of dollars and cents contextualizing everything, there is a second, invisible price tag that can turn a value proposition on its head. Put simply, it used to be that performance and convenience were things that separately influenced what people were willing to pay for a product. Now, they’re prepared to trade them off against each other, sometimes regardless of price.
That’s why I think digital disruption is a sideshow to what’s really happening in the mattress business, and more quietly in lots of businesses: To regain control of their time, consumers are signaling a willingness to exchange far more than we ever imagined.
That they would do this for a product so costly and personal serves notice to us all that the buying process isn’t just a retailer’s problem anymore. It’s become part of a product’s essential value proposition, and that makes it a marketing problem. We should assume, regardless of what we sell, that there will now always be two price tags. And at least one of them had better be a screaming deal if we hope to stay in the fight.
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