Gizmo Guy: Why so many consumers are buying beds online

Online offerings are the specialty of Brendan Rice (left) and Russell Suskind.

Are you one of the multitudes buying a mattress this month for you or your guests? Doing the deal online?

Buying a mattress on a laptop or smartphone may seem illogical since we spend one third of our lives sleeping on one. Isn't it smart to try before you buy?

But a few minutes of fully clothed repose on a showroom mattress doesn't tell us much. And the heavy-handed salespeople can be as off-putting as their used-car compadres.

For the media-minded millennials that Brendan Rice and Russell Suskind are now serving with their Philadelphia-based Doze mattress firm (dozebeds.com), "an online shopping experience makes more sense. It's the way we prefer to buy everything," said Rice, 24, who started the venture with Suskind, 25, as Venture for America fellows.

And p.s.: Venerable brands such as Sealy, Serta and Simmons "don't mean anything to someone who's in college or just out," said Suskind from their Walnut Street incubator space at Benjamin's Desk. "They're looking for a product that . . . offers comfort, good quality and affordability, that they can easily move into their apartment. And one that, if they don't like it, comes with a no-questions-asked return policy."

Often dubbed "bed-in-a-box" and built on compressible (for shipping) mattresses made mostly of high tech foam, the direct-sales bedding field is fast becoming a growth story.

This year it's poised to take 4.6 percent of sales in a $16 billion-a-year industry, up from 1.8 percent a year ago. And in 2017 and 2018, this B-in-a-B biz could cause "more significant harm to the traditional side of the industry," noted KeyBanc Capital Markets analyst Bradley B. Thomas in a recent report. He found customers are more than just millennials.

Top movers in the space include the celebrity-funded Casper brand, Tuft & Needle, Saatva, Leesa (with an item rated best of the online foam beds by Consumer Reports and thesweethome.com), Purple and Helix Sleep. While the last one is now New York-based, Helix Sleep boasts a strong Philly link, spawned here 30 months ago by a trio of Wharton MBA students: Kristian von Rickenbach, Alan Tishman and Jerry Lin.

Stressed by this new competition, mainstream bedding firms are launching bed-in-a-box offerings, like Sleepy's ZuZu, the Dream Bed by Mattress Firm (Sleepy's parent and the biggest U.S. retailer) and Cocoon by Sealy.

Select Comfort, a pioneer in direct-to-consumer bed sales, has just launched the It Bed. It claims to be the first bed-in-a-box that builds in biometric sensors to track and assess your sleep habits. And true to the firm's "Sleep Number" mattress-tuning traditions, the It Bed offers user-controllable contouring of left and right sides via an onboard electric pump that expands the bed's foam-filled air chambers. Both sleep tracking and firmness controls are run on a smartphone app.

For the roots of all this, look to NASA, which funded the development of compressible memory foam in the mid 1960s as a fast-recovering seat cushion material for astronauts enduring G-force liftoffs.

Also called "temper foam" - for its softening in reaction to body heat - this breakthrough material first achieved bedding acclaim in the early 1990s with the "Tempur-Pedic Swedish Mattress." This was beloved by some but despised by others for its unique "sinking into quick sand" embrace, heat-holding nature, and high pricing. Who spends up to $4,000 for a bed that's mostly petroleum based? Tempur-Pedic earned enough to buy Sealy four years ago.

Today, memory foam is made in more porous Gen. 3 forms that breathe better and are sometimes infused with "cooling" gel beads, as in the Doze beds. In most products, the memory foam layer is fused to one or two other varieties of denser, bouncier foam that enhances your mattress love (and, um, lovemaking). Doze touts its polyurethane materials as safe. Helix beds also boast a bottom layer of mini-springs and custom tuning at the factory for each buyer who has filled out an online use survey.

Prices for direct-to-you foam beds are more comforting, too, with $600 to $1,000 being the norm for a queen-sized mattress ($1,099 for the higher tech "It"), sent to your door.

Easy transport is a big selling feature. The beds are compressed, rolled and wrapped up in plastic by a machine "that looks like a giant rolling pin," said Rice. That makes a Doze queen small enough to squeeze into a three-foot-tall box, small enough "for UPS or Fed Ex to deliver" and for consumers to carry up a twisty staircase. Doze beds weigh about 70 pounds - others (such as "It") weigh less than 50.

And with healthy markups, most bed-in-a-box purveyors offer them with a 75- or 100-night trial period - with "no questions asked" refunds. The mattresses can't by law be resold. So a customer support agent arranges for a local charity to pick up the reject.

KeyBanc estimates that fewer than 10 percent of beds sold online bounce back. After five months of sales, just 2 percent of Doze beds (priced $450 twin to $850 king) have come back to haunt them.

"We spent a lot of time with our Maryland-based manufacturer, tuning our beds 'medium firm' to please" most buyers, said Rice.

takiffj@phillynews.com

215-854-5960

@JTakiff