Not long ago, Marcie Judelson went shopping to replace her 25-year-old, increasingly lumpy spring-coil mattress and fell down a consumer rabbit hole.
“I went looking for a basic mattress like the one I had and was shocked to find that world is gone,” says Judelson, an advertising copywriter who lives in San Francisco. “The mattress industry took something simple and made it incredibly complicated. And not for the better.”
Is there any home purchase more confusing and fraught with anxiety than buying a mattress? Study after study points to sleep being vitally important to our health and happiness, and it stands to reason that a mattress is a foundational component of a good night’s rest. And yet to choose the right one, shoppers must navigate a Kafkaesque maze.
For starters, most major brand names inexplicably seem to begin with the letter “s” (Simmons, Sealy, Serta and so on), creating a blurring sameness. Is Simmons a step up in quality from Serta? Does Stearns & Foster sell the Posturepedic, or is that Sealy? Is Sleep Number the name of the company on those infomercials and Select Comfort the bed it sells, or vice versa?
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And even if you can figure out the differences among the various brands, it’s difficult to comparison shop because many manufacturers sell exclusive lines to retailers. So the mattress you like at Costco may not be carried at Sleep rain — or if it is, it’s called something else.
After she found a mattress she liked in one store, Judelson says, “I’d go into store B and say, ‘Do you have the Serta blah, blah, blah?’ And the salesperson would say: ‘I don’t know. We may. But ours have different names.’ ”
Then there is the incomprehensible tech-speak: advanced pocketed coil technology; PrimaCool gel; viscoelastic memory foam. It’s as if mattress manufacturers are selling not what is basically a large stationary cushion but a spaceship.
David Perry, an editor at Furniture Today, an industry trade publication, has been writing about the bedding industry for almost 30 years.
“It’s tough to get your hands around,” he says. “One of the key points is that comfort is subjective. If comfort was objective, this would be simple.”
It would help if mattresses were like couches or dining tables and came in easily distinguishable styles, shapes and colors. But as Brett Swygman, a vice president for sales and development at Simmons, admits, the products his company and its competitors sell have a baffling visual uniformity.
People walk into a store, he says, “and see a sea of white rectangles.”
No part of the mattress shopping experience is more complicated than manufacturers’ explanations of what is inside those rectangles. Even German luxury carmakers don’t fixate this much on engineering.
Boiled down and simplified, there are two basic constructions: inner-spring (or encased) coils and non-inner-spring.
An example of the former is the Simmons Beautyrest line, with its pocketed coils. Swygman likens the coils to keys on a piano, in that they “all move independently,” and explains that they conform to body shape and shifting positions.
Non-inner-spring (or specialty) mattresses include those made by Tempur-Pedic, which uses a proprietary form of memory foam, a heat- and pressure-sensitive material that conforms to your body’s shape and was developed by NASA as a way to cushion astronauts who experience great G-force during takeoff and landing.
In the luxury bedding world, the focus shifts from construction to materials. Hästens beds, for instance, use horsehair that is sterilized for up to a year before going into the mattress. Shane Bahng, director of global retail development for Hästens, says horsehair “naturally wicks away moisture from your body.”
It also makes for a mattress that lasts longer than one made of synthetic materials, he says. “There’s no bringing it back once the synthetic materials break down. A bed made of natural materials can last a lifetime.”
In its reader surveys, Consumer Reports, which tests and rates mattresses, has found that most people tend to spend between $800 and $1,200 for a mattress, though a good mattress can be purchased for less.
“From the models that we’ve tested, they seem to start getting good in the $600 to $700 range,” says Ed Perratore, a journalist at Consumer Reports.
Here is a cheat sheet of things to keep in mind when shopping for a new mattress.
Don’t bust the budget. Spending more for a mattress doesn’t necessarily guarantee a better night’s sleep. In tests conducted by Consumer Reports, a $5,000 mattress performed about the same as one that cost $540. The difference is often organic versus synthetic materials. But industry experts say a well-constructed mattress can be bought for as little as $600.
Read the fine print. Although some retailers allow returns if you’re not satisfied, there are often conditions and fees attached. And mattresses purchased from many high-end retailers can’t be returned. Ask about the store’s return policy before buying.
Look for savings. One good thing about buying a mattress is that you can almost always find a sale going on. And if you miss a sale, there’s no reason not to try to negotiate a better price, especially at a bedding chain. Consider the sticker price a starting point, and don’t think you need to be satisfied with a token deduction. During a holiday sale, mattress prices can be reduced by as much as 50 percent and more, says Ed Perratore of Consumer Reports.
Comfort is king. Ultimately, the manufacturer, the number of coils or layers of memory foam, and the price of a mattress don’t matter as much as how it feels to you. If you lie on it for 15 minutes in the store and it feels good, it’s a reasonable indication that the mattress will be right for you.