When Instagram first exploded into our lives in 2010, it was quickly co-opted by the fashion set. Style-focused millennial bloggers like Aimee Song, Julia Engel, and Kendi Skeen quickly saw the platform’s potential to capture our attention with gorgeous, stylized images of the latest looks, set against backdrops of cityscapes or exotic tropical islands.
These twentysomething influencers became a powerful force on Instagram, partnering with brands to share new products with their thousands–or millions–of followers. But over time, these influencers got older. Some got engaged or married, they moved into new houses, and started having children. Suddenly, pictures of jumpsuits and “it” bags were interspersed with pictures of renovated kitchens, color-coordinated bedspreads, and trendy tableware for fabulous dinner parties.
Take Skeen, who launched a popular blog called Kendi Every Day back in 2009. The concept was simple: Skeen’s husband, a professional photographer, took daily pictures of what she was wearing. When Instagram came along, she quickly hopped on the platform, gathering nearly 150,000 followers eager to see her #OutfitOfTheDay. A decade later, Skeen has just had a baby. While she still features cute clothes on her Instagram stream, she also regularly posts pictures of her daughter’s nursery, the two of them playing on a couch strewn with throw cushions, and cozy shots by the fireplace.
When I reached out to Instagram, a spokesperson said pictures and conversations about the home are exploding—a 30% increase in the last year alone. There are now 39 million posts with the hashtag #InteriorDesign and another 6 million with the hashtag #HomeDesign.
Inviting The World Into Our Bedrooms
Ariel Kaye, founder of home brand Parachute, believes there is a broader cultural shift taking place. Every day, people are documenting their lives–including their intimate living spaces–on social media. It makes sense, given that more photos are taken every two minutes these days than in the entire 19th century, and the rate at which we take pictures is only going up.
Kaye says we’re sharing pictures of our bedrooms, living rooms, and bathrooms in a way that our parents would never have dreamed of doing. The Into the Gloss blog has a series called Top Shelf that invites women to take pictures of their bathroom shelves and medicine cabinets. During the winter months, perhaps inspired by the Danish concept of hygge, it is common to see Instagram light up with cozy selfies taken in bed, perhaps with a cup of tea and a book in the shot. When you’re particularly proud of an outfit you put together, it’s common to take a selfie in front of a full-length mirror in the bedroom, complete with messy sheets in the background.
Of course, consumers have always cared about what their homes look like, which is why interior design is a booming $9.1 billion industry. But Kaye says that the pace of social sharing means that people are now wanting to spruce up their living spaces regularly, since they are inviting more people in—if only virtually. Kaye believes the frequency with which we are sharing images of our homes on social media is prompting millennial consumers to accessorize their rooms much the same way they purchase fashion items.
“Our homes are no longer something behind closed doors,” Kaye says. “What we’re seeing from our customers is that they are much more conscious about keeping their homes looking on-trend. And bedding is a much more inexpensive way to really refresh an entire room versus buying new furniture or a new rug, which all have a higher price point.”
A Brand-New Market
This change in behavior, Kaye believed, created a new market opportunity within the $22 billion home linen market. On the lower end of the market, brands like Target and Walmart offer relatively inexpensive $20 sheets that are generally treated as a commodity, something you replenish when your old ones have worn out. On the higher end of the market, brands like Frette and Sferra offer stylish sheets in popular color palettes–sometimes in collaboration with designers–but at around $250 for a single fitted sheet that only the wealthiest consumers or poshest hotels could afford.
There appeared to be space in the middle of the market to sell high-quality sheets at lower prices online to specifically target the digitally native millennial set. So, in 2014, Kaye launched Parachute, a direct-to-consumer luxury sheets brand that cut out the middleman markup, allowing her to sell a fitted cotton sheet for $60. It turned out that she was part of a trend. At around the same time, many other home linen startups hit the market with a similar business model and price point, including Brooklinen, Boll & Branch, and Crane & Canopy.
Rather than treating sheets as a utilitarian item, these brands encouraged customers to come back regularly to buy new sheets to change the look of their bedrooms. In Kaye’s marketplace research, she observed that many bed linen brands assumed customers were making a one-off purchase and would only come back when they needed to restock in a couple of years.
Kaye, on the other hand, wanted to keep in touch with her customers in the same way a fashion brand might, so that they would stop by the website more regularly and purchase more frequently. Parachute sends out regular emails packed with fun home decorating content, plus information about upcoming product launches. “We have taken on the principles of fast fashion to introduce new products at a regular clip,” says Kaye. “We’re seeing that our customers want to have a different look, a different aesthetic in their rooms every season.”
One winning strategy has been to create season-specific sheets made from a range of different fabrics. For instance, in the summer, Parachute promotes its linen sheet collection that is more breathable. Brooklinen launched a range of limited-edition twill sheets that were specifically designed for the winter, since they are much softer and lighter to the touch than cotton sheets.
Many of these brands have expanded beyond their initial offering of bed linens. During the holidays, Boll & Branch sells pajamas and winter accessories like hats and mittens. Parachute, for its part, has expanded into bath, tabletop, and baby products. But Kaye has also ensured that the brand is putting out a regular stream of limited-edition home decor products, like throw pillows and blankets, plus regular collaborations with designers like Jenni Kanye and even beauty brand Osea.
“All of this is part of our retention strategy,” Kaye says. “When we introduced linen sheets, 80% of customers that purchased in those initial six months were all new customers, and when we introduced quilts we saw this again. But then, over time, they bought more products and layered them on to their other products.”
For Kaye, this approach has been paying off. She says that 10% of first-time customers return within a month to make a second purchase, and a third of Parachute’s total revenue comes from repeat customers. A full 45% of all Parachute’s customers come back to the site to keep purchasing.
Keeping Sheets Longer
So, does this mean that the bed linen industry is creating more waste, since consumers are buying sheets more frequently? Not necessarily, Kaye says. The trend she’s seeing among her customers is that they are buying multiple sets of sheets, then mixing and matching them to create different looks, much the way you would treat your everyday wardrobe. “We’re seeing it unfold as a totally additive experience,” Kaye says. “Someone starts with a set of pale white sheets in the summer, but once the fall comes, they might get a duvet that feels cozier or that is a different color. They might add a blanket or a quilt when it gets colder.”
In fact, many of these digital home brands deliberately create an aesthetic among all their products that makes it easy to mix and match products. Parachute, for instance, doesn’t sell bundles of sheets that include a flat sheet and a duvet cover, because she’s discovered that many consumers prefer not to use a flat sheet at all, while others want to be able to pick fabrics of assorted colors to create a particular look. Brooklinen allows customers to create a set of bedding that includes different patterns and colors that all look good together. “We’re seeing people thinking about buying sheets as just adding to their collection,” Kaye says.
In some ways, this has allowed the various startups that have popped up in the linen space to differentiate themselves one from another. While Boll & Branch tends to feature a more traditional aesthetic with plenty of pastel colors, Brooklinen tends to offer a more urban look, with palette of grays, whites, and blues. Parachute, for its part, tends to focus on earthier colors, creating a peaceful look.
Given that the sheets don’t get as much use because they are swapped out more frequently, Kaye predicts that much of this bedding will have a longer lifespan. Every time a customer washes their sheets, they can change the design of their bed, which means a brand-new backdrop for all the pictures of the room they will be snapping with their smartphone.
The bottom line: Might be time to get a bigger linen closet.