Mattress-in-a-box companies have remade the bed industry in recent years, proving that some people will buy anything online sight unseen.
But for the many people who still want to try a bed before they buy it, Ben Trapskin of Minneapolis has created a showroom for mattresses that are only sold online. And it appears to be the only one in the country.
The business, called Sleep Sherpa, evolved from a website he started two years ago to review online-only mattresses. That site started from Trapskin’s own experience of buying four mattresses online over two years, until he and his wife settled on one.
Trapskin shows a dozen brands of online-only mattresses, including Saatva, Brentwood Home, Purple, Nectar and Nest. He makes money from affiliate relationships, when visitors in the showroom or on his website click on various links.
He started Sleepsherpa.com in 2015 with online-only mattress reviews, then expanded to reviews of pillows, sheets and sleep gadgets. His site gets more than a 100,000 visits per month. The no-frills showroom at 7301 Washington Av. S. in Edina that he opened late last year is still a sleeper.
“The store’s at a break-even point, but 90 percent of my income is from the website,” he said.
He gets paid about $75 commission per mattress regardless of whether the purchase is made in store or through a link on his site. He said it’s considerably less commission than a Serta, Simmons, Sealy or Tempur-Pedic salesperson would get. He wants showroom traffic, but he’s careful not to turn it into a traditional hands-on, high-pressure situation that many millennials avoid.
“Young people don’t like to shop in a store faced with 44 mattresses,” said Jerry Epperson, a furniture and mattress industry specialist with Mann, Armistead and Epperson in Virginia. “They don’t like being sold. They’re happy to do their research online.”
Plymouth-based Select Comfort Corp., maker of Sleep Number beds, is also capitalizing on direct-to-consumer distribution. “Our online and direct-phone sales grew 25 percent [in 2016] and were particularly strong in the fourth quarter,” said Sleep Number spokeswoman Maggie Habashy in an e-mail.
The founders of Eight Sleep, a New York-based internet mattress company started three years ago, discovered one of the most important sales points is the return policy. “We found that without a trial period, people won’t purchase,” said Alexandra Zatarain, co-founder of Eight Sleep.
Stretching out on a mattress before buying reduces the chances of a return. Scores of internet mattress brands try to compete with traditional store brands by offering 100- to 365-day money-back return policies. Many brick-and-mortar retailers limit returns with exchange-only policies that require buyers to purchase their mattress cover.
Internet companies don’t require the cover, nor do most of them require the customer to squeeze the mattress back in the box to return it. Instead, most ask for proof that the mattress was donated to local charity. “We’re definitely getting more foam mattresses than we used to,” said Diana Dalsin, community relations manager at Bridging.
Dave Smittkamp, who runs Mattress Liquidators in West St. Paul, sells comfort exchanges by Saatva, one of the few online mattress companies that picks up its own returns. “I think the major brands like Simmons, Sealy and Serta will continue to lose market share unless they can go online,” he said. “Sealy now sells its Cocoon brand online and Therapedic and King Koil are trying it too.”
Trapskin said he is finding that his customers want the best of both worlds — researching online but testing in person before they buy.
“What Ben is doing is very interesting,” said Craig Schmeizer, a board member at Nectar, an online mattress company in San Francisco. “Without middlemen there is no need to upcharge. He can generate a lot of business with low overhead.”
Customers who shop at Sleep Sherpa spend far less than $2,000 for a queen bed, Trapskin said, but they are well-informed, regardless of age. “Boomers are the most finicky buyers,” he said. “They’re replacing their beds more frequently every five years or less for various reasons.”
And as people age, they develop health or comfort issues that makes it important to test a mattress before buying it. “A bed in a box for $500 or less is fine for the young, the guest room or the cabin, but eventually, you become more demanding and more careful,” Epperson said.
So why aren’t more of the online mattress reviewers opening their own showrooms like Trapskin? Many reviewers are based in metropolitan areas such as New York City or San Francisco with cost-prohibitive commercial rents. “I’d have to pay $20,000 or $30,000 a month in rent,” said Joe Auer, who founded the review site MattressClarity.com.
Derek Hales, who founded the review site Sleepopolis.com, considered it but decided it was a step backward. “What’s allowed online mattress companies to flourish is what they’ve removed — too many mattresses and pushy salesmen. I don’t want to go back to that,” he said.
Kevin Bartenberger of Cincinnati is a fan of the Trapskin’s mattress reviews and videos that show mattress tests and unpacking. While visiting family in La Crosse, Wis., recently, Bartenberger and his girlfriend drove another 160 miles just to check out the Sleep Sherpa showroom.
“In the stores, the ones I liked cost $3,000,” said Bartenberger, a 39-year-old firefighter. “But even if I’m spending a lot less, I could never buy a mattress sight unseen. It’s kind of like buying a car.”
After spending about an hour in the Sleep Sherpa showroom, Bartenberger bought a Nectar mattress. “Coming here was definitely worth it,” he said. “I need to test a bed and be completely satisfied before I buy it.”