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.’ ”

Continue reading the main story

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.”


The Hästens Marquis starts at $5,400 for a queen-size mattress.

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.


The Stearns & Foster Lux Estate Luxury Plush ranges from $2,100 to $3,299 for a queen.

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.

You Are Feeling Sleepy …

All those studies about the importance of sleep have made the mattress a high-anxiety purchase, but a bed is just one part of a good night’s rest. Don’t view a mattress as a sleeping pill, and don’t stress too much over its purchase. Below is a quick cheat sheet of things to keep in mind when out shopping.

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, said 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.sleep spa” for its collection of 10 beds, where shoppers can do that awkward lie-on-the-bed-for-10-seconds-with-your-shoes-on thing in peaceful surroundings. Such treatment comes at a premium: Hästens’s entry-level Marquis mattress starts at $5,400 for a queen, while the Dux 101, Duxiana’s entry model, starts at $5,185 for a queen.

A new manufacturer wants to eliminate the dilemma of choice altogether, by changing the way people shop for mattresses. Earlier this year, Casper, a New York-based start-up, introduced a single, one-mattress-fits-all product in standard sizes that can be bought online and ships inside a box.

Philip Krim, the company’s chief executive, said he was inspired by hotel beds. “When you check into a hotel, they don’t ask you, do you need medium, firm, plush-firm or plush-soft?” Mr. Krim said. “There’s one mattress.”

He added: “You don’t need 80 different choices. You don’t need to spend $5,000 on a mattress.”

The Casper mattress is made of memory and latex foams and sells for $850 for a queen. To make consumers feel comfortable buying a mattress that they haven’t tested in person, the company offers a 100-day trial period and an easy return policy: If you don’t like the mattress, the company will send a courier to remove it for a full refund. (At the bedding chains, there is usually a sizable return fee, and high-end retailers like Duxiana don’t allow returns.)


The Casper, a one-mattress-fits-all product that can be bought online and ships in a box, is $850 for a queen.

“I think sleep has never been more top-of-mind for consumers,” Mr. Krim said. “And yet, a mattress is bought in a confusing and antiquated experience. We didn’t see anyone speaking more basically about the product.”


No part of the mattress shopping experience is more complicated than manufacturers’ explanations of what is inside their mattresses. Even German luxury carmakers don’t fixate this much on engineering.

As Ms. Judelson said: “Of everything, that added the most to the stress and confusion. I would say, ‘Can I just have a basic mattress like I had?’ And that was not to be found. They’ve tried to make it high-tech.”

Boiled down and simplified, there are two basic constructions: inner-springor encased) coils and non-inner-spring.

An example of the former is the Simmons Beautyrest line, with its pocketed coils. Mr. Swygman, of Simmons, likened the coils to keys on a piano, in that they “all move independently,” and explained that they conform to body shape and shifting positions.


The Beautyrest pocket-coil Edenton, $2,299.

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 foam 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.

Of course, since we’re talking about mattresses, it isn’t that simple.

“There’s a popular trend in the industry of hybrid sleep sets,” Mr. Perry said. “It’s a combination of inner-spring and specialty foams.”

There is also another type of foam, called latex foam or foam rubber. “A lot of bedding aficionados — bedding executives and bedding store owners — sleep on latex beds,” Mr. Perry said. “Memory foam, you sink into. Latex pushes and elevates.”

The real question is whether any one technology contributes more than the others to a good night’s sleep and, if so, to what extent. Are two layers of memory foam better than one? Is the mattress with 1,000 coils that much more comfortable than the one with 900?

Ed Perratore, a journalist at Consumer Reports, which tests and rates mattresses, sees the focus on engineering as a smokescreen. “Things like how many foam layers, how many coils there are, the type of coils — some of this could help you, but it’s meant to keep you off-guard,” Mr. Perratore said.


The Sealy Plush Euro PillowTop innerspring is about $599 for this model.

There are several kinds of coils, he pointed out, including Bonnell,