The future of sleep

First published in Blueprint, June 2017
Associated Categories Design,Featured Tags: , ,
The future of sleep

Folks, I have seen the future of sleep. It is Chinese, and cheap. Man Wah Holdings, a £700m furniture company headquartered in Hong Kong, has brought its new SleepCheers mattresses to showrooms in North Carolina.

Yes, much of its website is years out of date, and its smiling chairman looked about 22 at the company’s 18th anniversary bash back in 2010. But the company made a gross profit of 40 per cent in 2016, has hired a bigwig from Macy’s to promote SleepCheers in the US, and offers Queen-sized versions of the mattress at a gasp-worthy starting price of $200 (£156).

The mattresses come to you online, in boxes, either compressed and rolled, or compressed, folded and rolled. They’re made of memory foam, gel memory foam, memory foam and latex, memory foam on the surface only, or as encased coils. UPS can deliver the frames beneath them.

Meanwhile, China has also ensured that frames themselves are changing. Jiaxing Shufude Electric Bed Company, based between Suzhou and Hangzhou in Jiaxing City, specialises in electrically adjustable frames, complete with handheld remote controls: it bought its main US distributor, Ergomotion, in 2014. Its frames massage you at three levels of intensity and put your feet above your heart (good for circulation). They come from a factory that stretches over 6.5 hectares – one that’s poised to make a million frames a year.

For UK manufacturers of mattresses and beds, the challenge from China is still for the future; at present, 87 per cent of the £1.6bn UK market is supplied from the UK, often by small, craft-based firms based in the north of England. But the sector that should really look out for Chinese manufacturers is retailing, not manufacturing. Already, about half the beds bought in Britain are bought online. Meanwhile, shops selling beds confuse the public with innumerable kinds of mattresses and discounts: comparison shopping is almost impossible. It can’t be long before, just for once, UK manufacturers, buttressed by Chinese rivals or partners, get the upper hand with retailers, for the latter make mark-ups of 100 per cent.

In Australia it’s a similar story: last year the Sydney Morning Herald found that ritzy beds retailing for A$10,000 (£5800) were being made for as little as $1500 (£872), while those costing A$4000 (£2325) were being made in China for a tenth of the price.

So an online, Chinese-led invasion of new beds, one that circumvents retail price hikes, looks very possible. Opened in January, a freight train route from Yiwu, on China’s east coast, to Barking, London, should help in that, even if it shaves only a few days off sea journeys. Still, as I heard at a National Bed Federation conference recently, the train could go both ways: British makers of luxury beds could perhaps have as much success in the Middle Kingdom as BMW, Jaguar and Land Rover.

Not everything in beds is getting easier, though. Couples want to sleep apart; people are getting fatter and taller; homes are getting smaller, with office buildings in Barnet and Croydon notoriously being converted to generate flats with floor areas as small as 15m2. So don’t rule out a growth in bunk beds for adults, a revival of wall beds, or even the kind of mattress you could somehow winch up to lie just underneath your ceiling.

Still, bed manufacturers are itching to add expertise in sleep to their hardware: expertise around bedroom light, air quality, smell, music and noise, self-cleaning textiles and – in the hotel sector, where sheets circulate in vast numbers – the Internet of Linen. Fair enough; but bed-makers might be unwise to try to add sleep to public health campaigns on diet and exercise. Obsessions with sleep, with mobile apps, wearables, mattress-based sensors and all the rest of it, could see bed manufacturers make grand promises, but fail to deliver on them.

Those obsessions around sleep are certainly growing. So are books in the same vein: take The politics of sleep: governing (un)consciousness in the late modern age (2011), Late capitalism and the ends of sleep (2013), Ariana Huffington’s The sleep revolution (2016), or the deliciously-named Sleeping your way to the top: how to get the sleep you need to succeed (also 2016). Finally, Chinese medics are now among the leaders of world research into sleep and blood pressure, and into insomnia and heart problems: their findings are circulated, almost at once, in popular media from Canada to Nigeria.

The ageing of the population will likely increase popular neuroses around beds. Unless sobriety triumphs, the humble bed could come to be regarded almost as medical equipment, rather than as a place to crash out on – or make love in.

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