Startups reinvent the sheet-buying experience

A new year calls for sparkly new sheets. But shoppers looking for high-quality linens without hurting their budget may want to skip the so-called white sales at mass retailers.

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A new cast of startups, including Parachute, Brooklinen, and Boll & Branch, are cutting out middlemen and selling directly to customers online at a fraction of the price it would normally cost at high-end stores. Licensing fees and markups at retail easily boost the price of a sheet.

These digital natives are filling a gap between high-end sheets that sell for $500 and up and mass-market sheets that sell for $100 and below but whose quality could be sub-par. They're also dispelling myths along the way, like ones related to the inflated high thread counts — the number of threads woven together in a square inch of fabric. The counts don't tell the whole story. Many of the startups offer shoppers a clear idea of where the sheets are sourced, too. Summit, New Jersey-based Boll & Branch, which sells bed sheet sets that start at $250, says the organic cotton it uses is fair trade. The company, founded in 2014, says its factories are fair trade, too. That means it's been certified through a fair trade organization that aims to ensure that cotton producers receive a fair price for their crop.

"The industry made the business of buying bed linens very complex," said Wendy Liebmann, founder and CEO of WSL Strategic Retail, a retail consultancy. "The shopper doesn't want any of that." She noted these new companies have "created a more curated offering and a much easier approach to bed linens."

Here are four guidelines for buying sheets:

— KNOW THE SOURCE: When Scott and Missy Tannen, the husband and wife duo behind the Boll & Branch brand, started doing their homework, they met with importers in local sales offices who had no idea where the cotton was sourced. After doing research, the Tannens went with the Chetna cooperative in India. CEO Scott Tannen says his sheet sets are on par with $1,000 sheets sold at a high-end boutique. Ariel Kaye, CEO of Los Angeles-based Parachute, says her sheets, whose sets start at just under $200, are sourced in Portugal, and she has spent hours in the factories to make sure the working conditions are good and that they don't use chemicals. Brooklyn, New York-based Brooklinen, whose sheet sets start at $99, says it sources its sheets in Israel and uses vendors with superior conditions and local expertise.

— BE WARY OF INFLATED THREAD COUNTS: In recent years, discounters have heavily advertised sheets with thread counts as high as 1,500. But the thread count isn't necessarily a gauge of fabric quality nor does it reflect the softness of a sheet, says NPD Group's Joe Derochowski. That's because lots of companies inflate the thread count by using multiple-ply yarn— individual threads are twisted around each other— and then pack them together. In fact, experts say be wary of thread counts of over 600. Boll & Branch's signature sateen sheets are woven to a 300-thread count, similar to the other startups.

— BUY 100 PERCENT COTTON: Shoppers may be tempted to buy wrinkle-resistant sheets, but if you like cool, soft sheets, that's not the best option. Best to buy 100 percent cotton sheets — and stick to long-staple cotton, which makes for a softer sheet. Shorter fibers can poke out of a weave, resulting in coarser and weaker fabric, according to Brooklinen. Avoid chemical finishes on sheets, too. After a few washes, that softness wears off. High-quality sheets are the ones that get softer each time you wash.

— FREE RETURNS AND OTHER PERKS: Boll & Branch offers free returns on bedsheets — even if used — though it requires returns be made within 30 days of delivery. Customers get their sheets wrapped in eco-friendly white packaging. Brooklinen says it will accept returns and exchanges within 365 days of purchase. Exchanges are always free, but any returns of washed or used products will be subjected to a $9.99 processing fee upon return. Parachute accepts returns within 60 days.

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