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Shopping for a Good Night's Sleep

What the experts say about shopping for a new mattress.

The high-pressure sales tactics, the misleading discounts, selling old, refurbished goods as new — I thought buying a car was a tough experience, until I went shopping for a new mattress.

The mattress my husband and I have is so old and so lumpy that we’ve taken to sleeping all over the house to avoid it: In the guest room, in the extra bed in the kids’ room, even on the living room sofa. With the idea that anything has to be better than the hills and valleys of our current 15-year-old mattress, we went shopping a few weeks ago.

Mattress Discounters advertised a huge sale, "50-60% OFF!" There we found an assortment of innerspring and foam mattresses manufactured by the "S" companies: Simmons, Sealy and Serta. We were encouraged to lie down and snuggle into each mattress to see what felt best, to try out different sleeping positions and varying firmnesses. I discovered two things: One, it feels really strange to curl up on your side next to your spouse with someone in dress slacks and a tie peering at you. Two, anything does feel better than our current mattress.

We were looking at queen size mattress and box spring sets, the most widely purchased size, according to the Better Sleep Council (the consumer education wing of the International Sleep Products Association). Mattresses and box springs are big business in the United States, with 39.7 million units manufactured in 2003. Almost 64 percent of those mattresses and box spring sets sell for $500 or more (including the almost 20 percent that sell for over $1,000). In other words, it’s a major household purchase.

Yet it’s also an extremely frustrating purchase to try to make. To begin with, the same model mattress will have a different name at each store, so it’s impossible to comparison shop. Imagine trying to buy a 4-door, 4-cylinder Toyota Camry. Only it’s called the Camry at one dealer, the Legato at the next dealer and the Fortissimo at the third. Each car has something slightly different about it, maybe the fabric used in the interior, so there’s no way to tell which dealer is truly offering the best price.

Ellen Kay, investigator with the Fairfax County, Va., office of consumer affairs, says she gets "more than the normal amount of retail complaints" from people trying to buy mattresses. The number one issue: "Consumers can’t compare the price on the mattress they see in one store with the price on a mattress in another store."

It’s "admittedly confusing," says Scott Whitaker, vice president of marketing for Simmons. "But retailers like to have their own stuff. It’s hard to eradicate (their) desire to carry their own exclusive lines."

Kay says consumers also "don’t know how to judge quality" in selecting a mattress, thinking that paying more for features such as a pillowtop (an extra layer of two to three inches of padding that’s sewn onto the top of the mattress) means they’re getting a better mattress. "In fact, the pillowtop compresses and develops ruts from use, and that’s usually excluded from the warranty," Kay says. "You can get the same effect by using a waffle pad or feather bed pad that you can throw away when it wears out."

The constant discounts and special deals offered by many mattress retailers present a third problem for consumers. Indeed, in the month or so my husband and I were looking at mattresses, every single store (including upscale department stores such as Bloomingdale’s) was having a sale. The editors of whatsthebest.com say most retailers and wholesale shops "run special sales 90 percent of the time. The primary reason mattress discounters do this is because they want to attract you into the store and make you feel like you have received a good deal."

At one mattress store, the salesperson offered us a special deal: He would take $500 off the price of the mattress and box spring set (priced originally at $1,800) if we bought a mismatched set, one in which the mattress and box spring didn’t quite match. The size, construction and quality were exactly the same, he assured us, it was simply the fabric covering the box spring that was different, and then it was just a matter of color (white instead of cream).

It sounded good (once you put all your linens on, who sees the mattress and box spring anyway?), but we were wary. Good thing. Investigator Kay says, "They tell you the fabric covering is just different. But in fact, the springs in the box spring may be an inferior wire gauge. Are you going to take a knife and tear open the box spring to determine the gauge of wire?" Kay has also seen this tactic used to sell, say, a new mattress with a used box spring. "You have to look at the label on the box spring to make sure that it hasn’t been disinfected."

Some — but not all — states have specific sanitary requirements when dealers sell a mattress or box spring that is returned after just a few weeks’ use, including mandatory labeling. Federal law requires that any mattress containing used stuffing must carry a tag or label with that information. In most cases, according to the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection, new mattresses will include a white tag or label that says the mattress contains "all new materials, consisting of" the specific materials.

In some states, used mattresses may have a red or yellow tag warning that the mattress contains used materials. If you don’t see any tag, you don’t know what you’re buying. "People don’t usually know that the ‘Do not remove under penalty of law’ warning on labels applies to the store, not the consumer," says Kay. "The store cannot remove labels."

With all this in mind, here are a few more tips on how to be a savvy consumer when shopping for a new mattress >

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