Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
In search of marketing synergy, Walmart’s Allswell mattress brand is getting into the prefab home business, selling trailer-mounted houses by Modern Tiny Living via its website.
In the most marginally ambitious brand crossover of all time, the online mattress-and-bedding retailer Allswell is going on tour across America in a Modern Tiny Living 28-square-foot prefab house, and selling mattresses out of the bedroom. Because everyone—inexplicably and all at once—wants a tiny home, and everyone loves a road trip, and everyone needs a mattress.
To be clear, no one is actually living in Allswell’s model tiny home, though it does come with a fully functional washer, dryer, refrigerator, two-burner cooktop, shower, and toilet. (Plus, of course, two beds equipped with Allswell mattresses, both queens. Not one more would fit.) Two brand reps are hauling this small trailer home behind a truck—they started in New York, and this past weekend they were in D.C., which is where I caught up with the tiny-mattress house set up in the heart of CityCenter, a shiny shopping neighborhood downtown. By April (!) they’ll reach Seattle.
Instead of crashing on the mattresses while en route cross country, the Allswell team is parking and staying in hotels each night. Seems like a waste of a house, but with dozens of guests streaming in and out each day snapping Instagrams of twee throw pillow arrangements and bouncing on the firm mattress paddings, things could get gross from a “cleanliness standpoint,” Rachael Durkin, Allswell’s head of retail, told me. (She assured me that Arlyn Davich, Allswell’s brand president, will actually be staying in the building for a week this summer, in Maine.)
And to be even clearer, Allswell, which is owned by Walmart, isn’t going right from making mattresses to making the houses around them. The tiny trailers are made by Modern Tiny Living, the Ohio-based firm that customized Allswell’s home to their specs. You can buy a carbon copy of the touring Modern Tiny Living model—plus two Allswell mattresses—for about $100,000, right from the website. According to Durkin, in the first three days they got 50 inquiries from interested buyers, and most of them wanted an exact replica.
In the race for one-click house shopping, the company is joining (and perhaps one-upping) Amazon, which sells fully furnished shipping-container houses. Think of these as 2019-style riffs on the mail-order pre-fab homes that Sears used to vend via catalog.
Why subvert the mattress-advertising norms of splashy subway campaigns and take a chance on a mattress-mobile? Looking at the experience holistically, Durkin said, “we really think that a tiny home emulates what our brand mission is—and that’s kind of ‘luxe for all.’”
Whether tiny homes represent a more inclusive form of luxury has been a point of much debate. The micro-living units have been marketed as an alternative living solution for the young and rootless —more upscale and urban-chic than a mobile home, but more attainable and flexible than a traditional mortgaged single-family home. The Modern Tiny Living model Allswell went with is mounted on a trailer, for those in pursuit of a free-wheeling #vanlife, but with better plumbing. “It lets you be mobile and travel and take the comforts of your home with you,” said Durkin. “For families that want to get on the road, but don’t want to sacrifice leaving their home behind.” Free slogan idea: Buying a mattress is a commitment. Buying a home doesn’t have to be.
Because tiny homes are cheaper and easier to build and erect than their non-tiny counterparts, they’ve also been touted as affordable housing solutions in costly cities. They’ve been deployed to house the homeless in Austin and Nashville and, soon, in San Jose. In Arizona, one public school district is proposing a tiny home village for affordable teacher housing. In Boston, the mayor’s housing innovation lab is pushing residents to build pop-up affordable tiny houses in their yards.
But Allswell’s tiny house is more Instagram-friendly than austere, maybe more suitable for the buyers who already have one or a couple of Normal-Sized Homes to spare. At $100,000, it’s also on the pricier end of the spectrum; most manufacturers sell the structures for between $35,000 and $100,000.
For that sticker price, you get an undeniably charming package. Like a teeny beach house in a Nicholas Sparks movie, the mini-cottage boasts a standing-seam metal roof, white plank paneling, and a trellis-lined window through which to gaze wistfully at some New England waterfront. (Or, in D.C., dirty snow and gawking pedestrians.) For the warmer months and climates, a “breezeway” can be created by opening garage-style doors on one side and french doors on the other—the mattress, naturally, becomes the focal point. Whilst showering, residents can reflect on the precarity of mobile living as they press their bodies against a tiled wall reading “It Was All A Dream.” For the showing, tiny-dog throw pillows and photo booth accessory signs reading “Blanket Stealer,” “Cuddle Monster” and “Make Your Dreams a Reality” were strewn about. (I sheepishly posed for a staged picture, but though the company ate my email address, I haven’t yet received the print.)
Honestly, though, there wasn’t that much stuff. There wasn’t space for it. And that may be the most attractive part of tiny home living of all: a way to live and breathe Marie Kondo minimalism, for a price. (Those who actually experience day-to-day life in a tiny home may find their pared-down existence somewhat less Zen-like.) With it’s scrupulously serene and mostly empty interior, the Allswell home doesn’t really feel like a place one could live long-term. But it sure looked like a great spot to take a nap. And that’s its main job right now—to provide a stage for the company’s bedding products.
Allswell, like other once-online-only brands (especially those hawking sleep fare), is realizing that the convenience of internet shopping can’t trump the power of brick-and-mortar interaction. Casper Mattresses, an Allswell competitor and one of the more famous online mattress purveyors, has plans to open 200 IRL stores across the country in the next three years. New York sleep aficionados can already nap inside Casper-branded pods in Soho, and consult sleep experts there for tips on getting better rest. In fiercely contested Millennial mattress marketplace, Allswell has a price advantage: Their classic queen costs $345 to Caspar’s $995. And now, Allswell, too, is looking to expand its audience.
“A ton of people were writing in and asking how can we touch and feel the mattress,” said Durkin. “We knew we wanted a physical location where people could lie down on the mattress, and engage with our brand in an offline manner.” The company will also use the tour experiment to decide whether to double down on investing in national storefronts. “We’re not ruling anything out at this point,” said Davich. “We might open a fleet of stores, we might open a fleet of tiny homes, we may decide that digital is where we want to stay.”
And another motivation behind barnstorming this mattress-mobile around the country is to reach more potential customers who might not associate a Walmart-affiliated brand with hip urban living, or who take their mattress-buying advice primarily from podcasts. (Allswell has stops in Hoboken and Bentonville along with San Francisco and Austin.) “I think that’s part of the tour also,” said Durkin. “Finding out whether there’s a customer base we didn’t know about prior.”