If you ever find yourself on the website of Tuft & Needle — a five-year-old startup that sells foam mattresses and pillows — you’ll be invited to watch an “unboxing video.” The high-production clip takes place in an empty, museum-like room, and stars a handsome man in perfectly tailored jeans holding a very stylish X-Acto knife. He walks you through three steps: Step 1: Remove the shipping box. Step 2: Remove the plastic cover. Step 3: Let your mattress expand.
The procedure takes about 44 seconds and is as unnecessary as an airplane seatbelt-fastening demo. Its furnitureless setting and free jazz soundtrack are pure minimalist porn, standing in defiance to the dusty mattress shopping experiences of yore that involved commissioned salesmen and excessive information about coils. This marketing alone is enough to convince you that what was once a near-universally despised and confusing item to shop for is now an easy and therefore beloved one. Or as New York magazine recently put it: “It’s not crazy — faintly ridiculous maybe, but not crazy — to suggest that we are living in what amounts to a golden age of mattresses.”
This enthusiasm for purchasing relatively mundane household items began with the mattress, but it has by no means ended there. Since the rise of Casper’s direct-to-consumer bed business, an entire new class of online businesses have emerged to peddle gateway adulthood products. After mattresses came the great sheet industry disruption, which includes a handful of online companies like Brooklinen, Parachute, Hill House Home, and Boll & Branch. There’s PONS, a bed frame designed by “a group of futurists” that supposedly takes five minutes to assemble and comes with a built-in phone charger. Campaign sells couches that can be easily taken apart and transported, while Interior Define advertises sectional seating that’s cheaper, customizable, and more durable than its midrange competitors. Simply Framed has laid claim to your walls with its mail-in framing services. And — just in case you don’t know how to arrange all of these items — there are room visualization companies like Modsy and Hutch doing that honest work for you. These businesses keep appearing, as if an inventory list for the items crammed into a mall’s Macy’s Home Goods floor were chopped up into confetti and thrown into the air for any web-savvy entrepreneur to grab. It’s only a matter of time until the curtains and lampshades and rugs in your home will have their own mobile-friendly, Helvetica-heavy websites, too.
As a generation of internet natives eased into adulthood, it was inevitable that a cabal of increasingly domestic startups would follow. Millennials, or whatever you want to call the estimated 80 million Americans who were born in the late ’80s and early ’90s, have hit a stage that some consumer trends experts refer to as “late adulthood.” Because they faced a series of financial challenges in their early lives (the Great Recession, wage stagnation, and rampant avocado toast addiction), this group initially postponed buying traditional signifiers of maturity later than their predecessors. Now, according to Jason Dorsey, the cofounder of a consulting and research firm called The Center for Generational Kinetics, they’re finally spending adult-like money on adult-like things, and they want to save time and energy by doing it online.
“Right now we are smack dab in the middle of a millennial peak spending for a lot of these products, in particular in the area of home goods–type stuff,” Dorsey said. “Millennials have the fewest accumulated shopping experiences for these types of purchases. They’ve literally never bought a mattress or these types of things before. So you’ve got to educate people enough so that you can feel confident that they’re making informed decisions.”
As startups specializing in on-demand domesticity have multiplied, so have the marketing plans for how to sell things to a new class of shoppers. For the most part, these businesses adhere to what Kate Muhl, a principal adviser for CEB Iconoculture, a consumer insights company, says millennials respond to best: a brand with both a compelling product narrative and a purpose beyond just making money.
“A brand should both tell a story and give a sense of education,” Muhl said in an interview. “In doing so, you get a kind of experience in an online setting so you can feel good about the purchase. All of that lends an air of authenticity to the offering that you don’t get by buying a Martha Stewart brand at Macy’s.”
But anytime a brand wrestles with the territory of authenticity, consumers are almost guaranteed to feel, as Jesse Barron wrote in a Real Life essay about on-demand apps, like they’re in “the middle of a decade of post-dignity design.” In his piece, Barron argues that sites like Yelp and Seamless have adopted a cool-babysitter persona in their marketing materials to mask their presence as a surrogate parent. In the world of domestic home decor startups — a realm much more painfully close to the idea of stunted adulthood — that vibe oscillates between an episode of Sandra Lee’s Semi-Homemade Cooking and a helpful older sibling. “We aren’t old textile industry experts,” Brooklinen’s “About Us” begins, assuring customers in so many words that the company isn’t a plant for Big Sheets, “we were people just like you looking for something super simple: a place to buy beautiful and ridiculously comfortable sheets that didn’t cost an arm and a leg.” The voice of these websites often wanders into the realm of gentle coddling, but furiously avoids overselling itself: “We’re experts in bedding so you don’t have to be,” reads the homepage of Hill House Home, but its “About Me” section includes a free-form poem that channels a more laissez-faire attitude:
Is this what a generation transitioning to late adulthood actually wants? Though Dorsey insists avoiding condescension is necessary, he says that explaining the confounding world of home goods with visual and to-the-point storytelling has proved effective. In fact, his research has shown that sometimes the more details you give to millennials, the less they trust a brand.
“Millennials may think: It doesn’t matter how many coils it has,” he said. “What matters is: Does it have the right social mission? Have they made the pain of delivering it super easy? If I don’t like it, can I send it back? These companies sell to all the objections up front, and they do it with visuals rather than a fancy marketing packet that has all this level of detail.”
These visuals often reveal a subtly infantile view of consumers. The drawings on Casper’s website and in its subway advertising are reminiscent of Goodnight Moon: a collection of illustrations of the company’s mattress in the forest, nuzzling a heart, and streaming out from the tip of a magic genie lamp. Its peers are no different: Brooklinen offers cutesy illustrations to demonstrate nearly every element of its business, from its manufacturing process to its thread count and the down filling in its. The steps in Tuft & Needle’s unboxing video are also drawn out alongside sketches of bed frames with which its mattress is compatible, for no other reason than to show you some nice pictures.
In simplifying the confusing marketing language of coil counts, cooling gels, and the Memorial Day sales of their predecessors, these companies have overshot and landed in children’s book territory. Sure, they’ve cut out the middlemen, streamlined the pricing, and guaranteed Amazon Prime–like delivery rates — but they have also replaced sleazy salesmen with an atmosphere that lulls you into a purchase, as if it were your surrogate parent telling you a bedtime story. Maybe that’s what we’ve wanted all along: to shed some dignity and succumb to the comfort of letting a brand tuck us in at night.
An earlier version of this piece included a headline that referenced apps aiming to help people grow up; it is startups, not apps.