Alysse Dalessandro is big and beautiful. She’s 33 years old, a plus-size “influencer” in Cleveland. Nine years ago she launched Ready to Stare, a body-positive fashion and lifestyle blog.
“I went on this journey of self-discovery online, which is the worst place to do it, but also the best,” she laughs. Some people have been cruel (it’s the internet, the trolls are everywhere!), but Alysse also discovered a lot of like-minded and like-sized people.
Point #1: Americans are getting bigger.
Point #3: Companies are missing out on a business opportunity.
“Brands don’t look at us as a desirable consumer,” Alysse tells me. She says some retailers “tiptoe” into the plus-size world, thinking, “Oh well, we’ll throw them a bone, and we’ll give them a size 16, we’ll give them a size 20, but we won’t put any money behind the marketing.”
Like... the part where she couldn’t get a good night’s sleep, where she always woke up with back pain.
“I was just used to a bed that wasn’t made for me.”
Enter Big Fig, a mattress company which only makes one thing: mattresses for big figures (hence the name). Alysse started out as a customer and is now a paid brand ambassador.
“Our mattress will hold up to 1,100 pounds,” says Big Fig president Jeff Brown, a man who is definitely not plus-size.
(Jane to self: Why didn’t I think of this idea? So obvious.)
So obvious, and so hard.
Jeff tells me Big Fig was created by the founders of a family-owned mattress company in Cleveland called White Dove.
The company’s CEO noticed that larger customers were often encouraged to buy the most expensive mattress, because they would return the mattress before the warranty expired (meaning they’d get another one for free). “These folks were wearing out mattresses in two years, and most of these warranties were going five to 10 years,” Jeff says.
It was not a good customer experience, and it wasn’t great for the mattress business, either. Jeff says White Dove thought there could be a better business model.
Big Fig was born.
But creating a new company to make a new type of mattress wasn’t easy.
“We went through tons of prototypes,” Jeff says.
I visited Jeff on the manufacturing floor where Big Fig contracts out production. Every mattress takes 30 minutes to make. “It’s a significant amount of labor," he tells me.
Each mattress is about 13 inches thick, made of high-density foam. King mattresses include 1,600 coils of high-strength steel and can weigh 150 pounds. Plus, “We have a cooling feature.”
The average price for a Big Fig mattress is $1,500-$2,100. They have 20-year warranties and a 120-day sleep trial. “We have very few returns,” Jeff says. What’s more, “We found that people are saving money on chiropractors.”
The mattresses are only sold online, and they’re delivered to your home in a large FedEx box.
What the... really?
Alysse says home delivery in a box was a huge deal, because people didn’t want a mattress brought in by a delivery crew, especially during Covid. She also says Big Fig didn’t think it was possible. “They were like, ‘Well, there’s no way we could compress this and ship it in a box.’”
But Big Fig invested in an expensive compression/folding machine and made it work. Check it out:
Here’s my favorite part: The 13-inch mattress sits atop a 7-inch wooden foundation made by an Amish company, America's sveltest population. “They helped work with us to design a foundation that holds up to 1,500 pounds, fits in a box that’s shippable by FedEx, and it’s easy to assemble,” Jeff says.
He tells me that Big Fig has sold over 20,000 mattresses since their debut in 2017. “We had a nice boost from Covid in 2020, but 2021 has seen a significant increase, up to 50% over the previous year.”
It was slow going at first. Jeff admits, “When I came here, we were losing money.” That first year, when sales started, “We actually had a bell, and when we sold one mattress, we would ring the bell.”
Not a lotta bell ringing back then.
One design area that required quite a bit of trial and error was “edge support.” The edges of a mattress need to be strong enough to keep someone from rolling off, and firm enough to support a person swinging their legs over to stand up.
Jeff Brown’s team placed metal plates weighing 45 pounds on the edge of a prototype mattress to test its strength. “We would stack them up, and they would slip and fall.”
After many tweaks to the mattress, “We got to the point where we could hold 250 pounds on the edge of the bed and not have it slip off, which means we felt pretty comfortable that a 500-pound person would be able to have that edge support on the bed.”
“This is so much firmer than what I’m used to,” says Alysse of her Big Fig mattress, and she’s not the only customer to say so. Alysse says she didn’t realize at first that the lack of support she’d had for years from a traditional mattress was the reason she couldn’t sleep. Suddenly, with her new mattress, “My back pain went away. I was finally sleeping through the night.”
She’s owned her Big Fig mattress for five years. “Now when I go to a hotel, I miss my bed.” (Yours Truly checked out one Big Fig mattress, and it is on the firmer side, but I’m also a smaller-sized person.)
Now, millions of dollars in sales later, Big Fig is seeing competitors enter the marketplace. But Jeff Brown says it takes commitment to target an underserved community whose members may not always have a lot of spending power.
“You have to be very specific in your ad dollars, very specific in your marketing, very specific in your audience and community,” he says. “I think that keeps major mattress manufacturers out of the space.”
Big Fig is spending almost all of its ad dollars on social media, but it’s learning that finding the best marketing language is a process.
Let’s be honest.
Most of us are getting bigger, and yet big people are shamed for it.
“We’re the majority, and we’re not spoken to that way,” says Allyse. “For people to continue to ignore us, because society views us as undesirable, is going to become, more and more, a bad business decision.”
But how do you speak to this community? Even Allyse wonders what language to use in marketing when some plus-size people don’t even want to be called that? “There’s a lot of emotions that are tied to our size because of how we have been talked to for our whole lives.”
Like, who can use the word “fat?” Should anyone?
Alysse uses it because she wants to take control of the narrative.
She says “fat” is “just a descriptor of my body, there’s nothing negative to it.” Does it mean ugly? “‘Ugly’ means ugly.”
Big Fig has launched the Big Fig Collective, an panel of eight customers who are advising the company on new products and better marketing. “We realize that we’re not all plus-size,” says Jeff Brown. “We don’t live in bigger bodies, and so it’s hard for us to relate sometimes to the accommodations that people have to make, because society doesn’t make it for them.”
However, “fat” is not a word you will see in Big Fig advertising.
“We try not to pick sides,” he says about the debate around size. “We just want you to get a great night’s sleep.”
Now Big Fig is thinking… bigger. It may add new products like body pillows and mattress toppers. The company is launching a #SEEALLOFME campaign.
Jeff says coming to work here has been rewarding in ways he did not expect. “[For] 30 years I’ve been in consumer goods, and I’ve never had that feeling where a customer says, ‘Because of your products, it made a difference in what I can do on a daily business.’”
He receives these kinds of emails regularly, people telling him a mattress has changed their lives, and that gives him goosebumps.
“I worked for Rubbermaid,” he says. “I never got a review that told me Rubbermaid totes were life-changing.”
Cover photo by Fabio Formaggio/EyeEm.
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