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What the direct-to-consumer sales model is missing

Mattress company Casper and fashion brands like Everlane, which both subscribe to a direct-to-consumer sales model, have streamlined the purchase process, but don’t satisfy the needs of many shoppers to try before they buy.

It used to be that when anyone asked my advice on when to save on big household purchases, I recommended they hold off until the January white sales – the annual bed, furniture and major appliances clearance that made way for the year's new models. But people seldom ask anymore now that Internet start-ups have simplified both the product and process. Their direct-to-consumer (DTC) model, and promotion of the idea that too much choice is bad, gives many consumers the impression that these companies have revolutionized the category. So, why then do the high-street shops look the same as ever?

Casper, the $100-million memory-foam mattress company that began as a start-up in 2014, disrupted the sleepy $12-billion-per-year industry by calling its product the perfect mattress. It has no bricks-and-mortar retail outlets so accommodates risk-averse online consumers by offering free returns and a 100-night trial. The only choice a shopper has to make is the size, an alternative to more expensive and unnecessarily complicated debates about coil mattresses and box-spring pairings. Or, at least, that's the argument Casper makes; memory foam is the only type of mattress that works with the company's free-delivery business model. Mattresses are rolled up and delivered in compact boxes, something that could never be done with a traditional box- spring or coil mattress. And while memory foam may not suit all people, or even most, it does suit many, and many is enough to make a viable business.

The thinking behind this business model is that customers, accustomed to Internet shopping, are disillusioned with the inconvenience of a showroom, and wary of all the lingo and variations of competing name brands and features. With this DTC model, there's no haggling or second-guessing the recommendation of a commission-based salesperson or wondering if shopping on a different day might yield a better deal.

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This celebration of pared-down product offering is born of necessity. Like Casper, Endy and Tuft & Needle have to say that foam-only is the better way to sleep – their business models depend on a straightforward manufactured item that can easily be rolled for inexpensive shipping and self-installation. Real or imagined, it all adds up to a perception of value and an empowered consumer. There's something vaguely cultish about the positioning, which is also part of the strategy – to turn consumers into brand evangelists. Now, these no-name-brands have become name brands in their own right.

By design, consuming these brands feels like participating in a movement rather than simply shopping (the Essentia natural memory foam mattress, for example, is endorsed by no less than Deepak Chopra). Bed-in-a-box company Endy, named for the Greek myth of Endymion, the handsome shepherd in eternal slumber, promotes its #sleepbetter philosophy with social good by, in partnership with an anti-malaria campaign, donating a bed net for every purchase. Customers proudly participate in the movement (and company marketing) by using the hashtag when posting unboxing videos and photos on social media.

Warby Parker, Everlane and Canada's own Frank + Oak skip the typical brand-name retailer system too, and sell only their own closely edited stock (it's less variety, but less risk associated with inventory management). And that bypass of the traditional system enables, in theory, better quality products at more affordable prices. But that's essentially what Gap and J.Crew and every other vertically integrated brand started out doing – working directly with factories and selling only via its own retail channels. Besides its more transparent supply chain, Everlane is fundamentally a web-native Gap with more minimal taste: The head of product at Everlane is one-time Gap creative director Rebekka Bay.

In place of the showroom sales associate, whether for a mattress or an Oxford shirt, independent review sites have sprung up but aren't always as impartial as they appear.

It was, in hindsight, inevitable that the affiliate income and traceable referrals made possible through online links would give rise to a scenario as insidious as the traditional model: Last year, Casper filed several U.S. lawsuits against the operators of consumer mattress-review websites, citing deceptive consumer practices, bias and lack of full disclosure on the commissions and referral fees earned through affiliate links when they deliberately recommended its competitors. The suits were rejected but not without a judge urging review sites to better disclose fiduciary relationships.

That halcyon period of perfect, single-click simplicity was brief – now DTC mattress browsing involves the same amount of price, feature and quality comparison shopping as the old model. The disrupters cultivated a distrust of inventory control and overhead, of the intermediary, traditional retailers and their experts. It created a mentality of us versus them: Big Eyewear, Big Mattress, Big Makeup, Big Fashion, Big Auto. But now, Everlane, Frank + Oak, Warby Parker and the like are opening high-overhead brick-and-mortar stores.

Because customers still want to try before they buy, many of the online start-up brands have opened show-rooms – separate, individual showrooms. If only there was some way all these mattress companies could make it more convenient for consumers to try out beds of different makes, models and price points. On a related note, Sleep Country Canada (the country's leading specialty-mattress retailer) recently posted its 13th consecutive quarter of revenue growth and record profits.

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