What we can learn from buying mattresses over the Internet

I just bought a mattress over the Internet. I tell you this personal fact, because it gave rise to some interesting thinking about the future of online retail.

A  mattress is, in my view, a long way from an obvious thing to buy online. It’s big, bulky, and you generally buy them by going to a shop and lying awkwardly on a bed for a period of time that in no way reflects what you’ll actually be doing with the mattress. So how do you go about selling them online?

Well, first, you need to make the mattress entirely predictable. Koala, who I bought from, have only one sort of mattress: In different sizes, sure, but there’s no variation beyond size. That means you know exactly what you will get. It also means that you know what you have is the same as the people who wrote reviews got. There is absolutely no complexity or confusion. If you’re selling online you need simplicity and predictability.

Second, you need to reassure the punters about what will happen if they don’t like what they get. A 120-night trial seems to cover that. Try it out for 120 nights and return it if it doesn’t work for you. Full refund, they pay for shipping. That would be clever even in old-fashioned mattress retailing terms; but with a sight-unseen online sale, without the opportunity to do the awkward-lie-down-in-the-shop-thing, it is brilliant.

Next you need to get the thing you paid for and because you’re buying online, you need instant fulfillment. Four hours from ordering to delivery – that’s frankly amazing. I can get a new mattress more quickly than a new t-shirt, or a bag of apples. That makes for happy shopping.

The speedy delivery has got to be a function of the fact that the mattress fits into a box. Because it is a foam mattress, when you suck the air out of it and roll-it up it fits into a manageable box that can be delivered by one person (and you can stick lots of them into a van). Again clever thinking making, an online business viable. But it’s not really new, it’s the same clever thinking that revolutionised freight with the invention of containerised shipping.

I bought the mattress after glowing reviews online, a strong Choice article, and a recommendation from my brother. I’m not going to comment on the mattress itself, simply because the point of this article is not to review Koala’s mattress – it’s to point out that what Koala, and it must be said their mattress-in-a-box competitors, is doing is indicative of a whole new, and better, way to retail online. Hell, it’s a better way to buy things in any circumstances. If you can do this with mattresses, there’s no reason that you couldn’t do similar things with a bunch of other non-obvious lines.

While the use of the Internet makes this all seem very modern. Ultimately the business here is not about the Internet and technology. It’s about innovation in creating the mattress sure, but it’s also about innovation in the retail experience. Technology is enabling the improved retail experience from easy ordering, through to fabulous tracking of the speedy delivery, through to clever marketing – technology is enabling all this, but it’s not about technology per se. This is the fascinating thing, we’re getting past the technology being cool just because it is new, and moving on to the technology being used to do cool things.

I am quite literally awestruck to think I live in times when I can get a new mattress in four hours; not because of the mattress, but because of how lucky we are to be living in a time with all these possibilities around us.


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