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,” said Ms. 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?
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 Sleepy’s — or if it is, it’s called something else. After she found a mattress she liked in one store, Ms. Judelson said: “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. A shopper visiting the Macy’s in Downtown Brooklyn on a recent afternoon could find among the dozens of mattresses for sale the Vitagenic Streamline Cushion Firm by Aireloom, priced at $3,349 for a queen set and boasting “plush talalay latex support.”
Talalay latex? C’mon, mattress people.
Now it sounds as if you’re just making stuff up.
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,” Mr. Perry said. “One of the key points is that comfort is subjective. If comfort was objective, this would be simple.”
Because a mattress is something we all must buy at some point, a demystifying seemed in order.
A Sea of White
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, admitted, the products his company and its competitors sell have a baffling visual uniformity. People walk into a store, Mr. Swygman said, “and see a sea of white rectangles.”
Not only do most mattresses look alike, but their essence — the components that distinguish well-made models from lesser ones — is hidden. Perhaps that’s why bed names can reach a baroque absurdity in their effort to convey opulence, comfort and engineering superiority: Edenton Luxury Firm (Simmons), Warrington Luxury Plush (Stearns & Foster), Vitagenic Gel Ultra Firm (Aireloom), Hybrid Utopian Retreat (Serta).
If you cut through the marketing-speak, though, identities emerge among the major manufacturers. Simmons trademarked the pocketed coil, a barrel-shaped, independently moving encased spring.
Tempur-Pedic is known for memory foam (more later on both of these technologies), and its sibling brands are Stearns & Foster and Sealy, which both make spring and foam mattresses. All are owned by Tempur Sealy International. Serta is the No. 1 mattress brand by wholesale sales. Select Comfort is the main producer of air beds, which it markets under the name Sleep Number. And many of these brands have several lines, to hit a range of price points.
“One advantage of the proliferation of products is that you have many choices,” Mr. Perry said.
Of course, that can prove overwhelming. So Mr. Perry suggested that mattress shoppers focus less on the marketing and hardware and more on what he calls the “software.”
As he put it: “How does it feel to you?”
Mr. Swygman suggested a self-limiting strategy. “I’d make sure the sales associate doesn’t show me more than three beds,” he said. “You’ll be able to find a bed that is the right feel, will help solve sleep problems you’re having and fit into a budget.”
Still, that isn’t always necessary, depending on where you shop. While the selling floors of department stores and bedding chains like Sleepy’s and Sit ’n Sleep are a fluorescent-lit sea of white, most high-end mattress stores tend to resemble a gentle pond. The more you’re willing or able to spend, it seems, the less you’re overwhelmed with options.
At the Duxiana boutique on the Upper East Side, the Swedish maker of “high performance sleep systems,” as it refers to its mattresses, provides only three models to test. On a recent afternoon there, Norwegian electro-pop played in the small, tranquil space, while a salesman took 20 minutes to explain the differences in construction and feel between the beds. Brandishing a pillow napkin for the customer and peppering his pitch with references to research performed in “Swedish sleep labs,” he came across more like a sleep technician than someone trying to close a deal.