By Alvin Mak
Are the online mattress companies of Hong Kong facing the same fate as Casper?
They’re convenient, they’re comfortable, and they’re cheap. It seemed like online mattress shopping businesses had struck gold. Startups like Casper and Purple were – and still are – promising to forever shift the way people think about sleep.
Instead of going to a typical mattress store and testing every mattress available in an effort to find the best one, these companies took the experience online. They created the “mattress in a box” experience—where mattresses are ordered online and delivered to your home in a box designed for convenient unpacking.
More importantly, these companies more often than not have a free trial period, where mattresses can be returned free of charge in addition to a full refund. This removes the commitment element from the online shopping experience, making it more palatable to make such an expensive purchase without trialling the product first.
These businesses have also been eking out chunks of the Hong Kong market, alongside homegrown players. With the likes of Canada-headquartered Noa, and Hong Kong-headquartered Ecosa and Skyler, the Asian metropolis has clearly been flagged as a hot market for online mattress shopping.
It would only make sense for Hong Kong to foster a booming online mattress ecosystem. One of the most dense cities in the world, 7.5 million people reside in the bustling city. The city’s tight living areas make these “mattress in a box” delivery experiences even more desirable given that traditional retailers often charge extra for delivery and surcharges for walk-up buildings.
The viability of this model may also give cause for offline retailers to consider their strategies: they, too, could shift to a similar business model in order to avoid Hong Kong’s infamously high rents.
Yet, these companies have received lackluster and underwhelming responses so far – which leads to the assumption that perhaps this industry isn’t as airtight as we once thought.
No story about online mattress shopping would be complete without Casper Mattresses. Founded in 2014, the company’s vision is to reinvent the experience of sleep—to turn it into a conscious lifestyle investment much like what Nike did with athletics. The company saw its share in the U.S. mattress market grow by 3.2% by selling to over a million customers. As a result, Casper was able to capture over $400 million in sales up until last year.
Casper’s revenue grew by 43% between 2017 and 2018, growth which partially owes itself to a $170 million funding round secured in mid-2017. A subsequent capital infusion in 2019 raised $100 million, which prepped the company for an IPO filing in 2020. Backed by a $1.1 billion valuation, Casper filled investors with confidence in the company’s prospects.
Ultimately, Casper (CSPR) officially went public in February 2020, opening at $12 per share and closing at $13.5. It was only able to capture a fraction of its original $1.1 billion valuation—clocking in at only $470 million. It was then revealed that Casper had already cut the original asking price before going public—from an optimistic $17-$18 per share to its more modest $12 opening.
The company’s incredibly under-performing IPO launch came down to Casper’s inability to meet a sustainable profit margin. In 2019, Casper spent 73% of its gross profit to acquire sales, signalling untenable expenditure on marketing. However, its returns were not up to par—only securing a reported 20% in growth.
Pumping hundreds of thousands into expansive social media ad campaigns to shout louder than the competition was not a long-term strategy. Though the company tried to pivot a tech model – from selling mattresses to selling ‘sleep’ itself in the form of various devices to control lighting, sound, humidity, scents, and even things like supplements and sprays for better sleep, people weren’t buying it.
To rub salt into the wound, Casper was accused of failing to be transparent with investors, who were responsible for the injection of more than $100 million into the company. Casper was said to have been unable or unwilling to disclose dwindling profit margins and workforce reductions. This led to cash flow troubles post-IPO.
Regardless of the truth behind the allegations against Casper, it’s clear that selling mattresses online is perhaps not as profitable as initially imagined. These signs have also been noticed in Casper’s primary competitor, Purple, which has experienced a 40% drop in stock price since a merger with an investment shell company. Purple, similarly, has not yet seen a profit.
With Casper and Purple clearly stuck in troubled waters, Hong Kong’s mattress sellers are under pressure to avoid the same fate.
Paradox of Choice
Some critics have attributed the woes of Casper and Purple to industry culture—which is defined by a heavy reliance on social media ad campaigns.
Brands would either advertise through YouTube ads, Instagram promotions, or sponsored content from creators. This became par for the course within the industry, filling every corner of the Internet with mattress ads. Since this marketing strategy isn’t particularly hard to copy, the entry threshold became much lower for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Given this lowering of the barriers to entry, more and more companies flooded into this space, giving rise to a whopping 175 mattress companies in the U.S. market alone.
A similar phenomenon happened in Hong Kong. The city’s mattress market is now a battleground between Skyler, Comma Sleep, Ecosa Mattress, Noa, Hush Home, Emma, and others. Each brand has the typical “mattress in a box” service, in addition to the industry standard free trial period, leading to very similar marketing campaigns. These brands have likewise inundated Hong Kong’s public spaces, particularly within the city’s extensive subway network, with relentless ad campaigns.
The similarities are ever-more apparent when one looks into each brand’s flagship mattress. Noa claims to have the “perfect mattress” with “balanced firmness”; Skyler promotes its product by saying it has “the perfect combination of exceptional comfort and firm support”; Comma Sleep argues that the “Comma Sleep Mattress is perfectly balanced for you”. It almost seems like every company offers a “perfectly balanced” sleeping experience.
On top of that, each mattress also seems to have its own “revolutionary” cooling or breathable technology, backed up by patented designs with shamelessly buzzy names, and supplemented by eye-catching cross-section diagrams.
The customer is therefore left to make decisions based on whether they prefer a “2 inch Gel Memory Foam” layer, “ECO-Tex Memory Foam”, or “ OEKO TEX® certified latex layers”—terms which are likely to mean nothing to consumers themselves. Ultimately, all these mattresses are the same in the eyes of the customer.
The problem with the industry can thus be made quite clear—there are too many options. The industry is a perfect manifestation of the paradox of choice.
While the unsuspecting entrepreneur may assume more options equal a more comprehensive and meaningful buying experience, like any market, there will be diminishing returns eventually. When customers are bombarded with buzzwords, cross-section diagrams, and product specifications—all things designed to simplify the shopping experience—it can ultimately be both fatiguing and overwhelming. This often leads to consumers forgoing the purchase entirely.
Online mattress shopping was created to make mattress-buying frictionless. Ironically, competition in this space has instead made the process more complicated than ever before.
Perhaps this would explain why these companies have been struggling to make a profit—as demonstrated by Casper’s myriad struggles. Perhaps this could also explain why Hong Kong’s homegrown online mattress companies have not received much press since they launched in 2017 and 2018. Worst of all, perhaps the world is indeed ‘ready’ for online mattress shopping, but friction in the process has made it seem like a premature concept. One thing is for certain: in order to make any tangible mark on the market with what is certainly a novel business model, Hong Kong’s online mattress brands will need to significantly reinvent their current approaches.