A friend once advised me, "never skimp on shoes, tires, or mat-tresses because that's what's between you and the good Earth."
Still, I consider getting a good deal almost a moral imperative, especially on a high-ticket item like a bed. After all, a mattress is a long-term commitment--eight to ten years, according to most manufacturers--and you'll spend more time with it than with any other piece of furniture.
Once I'd convinced my mate that our lumpy mattress had to go, we focused on a full-page newspaper ad featuring unheard-of prices, offering to whisk away our old bed for free, replace it with a new, supremely cushioned delight, and throw in delivery, setup, and a frame to boot.
But when we arrived at Mattress Discounters, we were steered away from the advertised "Kinder Pleasurest."
"I could sell you that," the salesman said, as we all turned to look at the offending merchandise. Then he brightened and pointed out a pricier Sealy model with an enthusiastic: "But here's the latest thing in sleep comfort, and it's actually a much better value!" The salesman also said we could have the Sealy immediately but couldn't get the sale item for weeks because they were out of stock.
We were invited to take a test drive, but I found it awkward lying down in a bright showroom.
After trying out a few models, we returned to the Sealy. As eager as I was for a new mattress, I insisted we sleep on it--the purchase, not the mattress. I had to do some comparison shopping.
Easier said than done.
First was our salesman's urgent, "What can I do to sell you a bed today?" followed by invitations to dicker, reminiscent of my last used-car deal.
Once we managed to get out the door, we discovered a greater challenge--sorting through the many discounters, department stores, specialty shops, and telephone ordering services offering a dizzying array of mattress options.
When we had first seen the ad for that "blowout" sale, we marveled at our timing. "Geez! Just when we're in the market, there's this great sale!" But as the purchase process dragged out over the weeks, we discovered that mattress sales abounded, celebrating everything from Presidents' Day to Arbor Day.
Increasingly suspicious, we set out shopping again. We had hoped to compare prices on that Sealy but discovered, in store after store, that Sealy makes a line "exclusively" for each of them.
The same model from Brand X will be called the "Super Sleeper" in one store while the second store carries it as a "Super Crest" and a third as the "Super Perfect Sleeper."
Along with changing the name, the manufacturer will slightly alter the padding or upholstery to "customize" the product for the retailer. While this doesn't make much difference in the bed, experts say, it renders comparison shopping virtually impossible.
The name game makes it hard for even experts to sort through the mattress maze. ConsumerReports.org unhelpfully notes, "If you think shopping for a car is an ordeal, try shopping for a mattress. . . . the names of essentially identical mattresses--called 'comparables' by the industry--often differ from store to store. . . . This name game allows retailers to vary the price of similar mattresses by hundreds of dollars."
Confused, and wondering if our old bed might see us through a few more years, we made one last stop--at Bloomingdale's, where a low-key salesman showed us "cutaway" mattress sections to help us see the differences in models. He didn't insist that we buy that day. And we didn't. But we went back later and clinched the deal, mostly because the seller's lack of desperation inspired our confidence--something I found to be my bottom line in the frustrating process of mattress shopping.
Trade associations such as the Better Sleep Council and the American Innerspring Manufacturers advise that you buy a mattress from someone you trust. They also suggest shopping for comfort and quality over price--"spend as much as you can afford" is their mantra.
I was looking for more helpful guidelines than that, but there are only a few quantifiable measures to use when comparing beds.
It Comes Down to Comfort
It's hard to get a real feel for a bed lying down fully dressed, so wear comfortable clothes and slip-on shoes, and recline more than just briefly, preferably with your mate.
Lie down on each model for at least ten minutes, without a pillow, turning over in all the positions you sleep in. Note what happens when your partner moves. Check that your hips and shoulders--the heaviest parts of your body--are supported. According to the American Innerspring Manufacturers, if you can fit your hand between the mattress and the small of your back, your hips and shoulders are in the right position and your back is in a proper "S" curve.
Mattresses are rated by manufacturers for comfort, generally ranging from firm to cushion firm to plush and ultra plush. But one manufacturer's "firm" may feel harder than another's--so ask a salesman how manufacturers' ratings compare.
The latest news in mattresses is pillowtop cushioning, says Nancy Butler, editor of Sleep Savvy Magazine, a publication for the sleep industry. The difference between a plush mattress and a firm one is generally the amount of cushioning on top.
"A pillowtop mattress has the same level of firmness and support as a mattress without pillowtop," says Jennifer Nemecek, director of marketing for Mattress Discounters, "but in terms of comfort a pillowtop will just feel softer,"
Washington chiropractor Larry Brown agrees that cushioning on top is a matter of personal preference and doesn't affect your back. Despite the belief that a hard mattress is better for the back, Brown recommends getting cushion firm rather than firm and warns against futons and waterbeds.
"Too hard can be just as bad as too soft," he says. "You need some give. Your body's not made of cement."
Takoma Park chiropractor JoAnn Zinn, however, sleeps on a futon and recommends the cotton-filled variety with an inner foam cushioning to relieve some of the hardness.
Chiropractors and retailers agree that comfort is highly individual. Most sellers offer a 30- to 60-day guarantee whereby the customer can exchange or return an unsatisfactory bed. Some stores put conditions on a return, so you may want to get details.
How to Judge Quality
Innerspring mattresses, which account for 90 percent of the 21 million beds sold last year, are pretty much all made the same way: Steel coils are surrounded by padding, and the whole mattress is wrapped in upholstery.
On innerspring mattresses, you can determine quality by looking at coil count, wire gauge, and the thickness of a mattress. A retailer should have the manufacturer's specifications for each model it sells.
Experts recommend at least 300 coils for a full-size version, 375 for a queen, and 450 for a king. But a high coil count alone doesn't mean it's a better product, according to the Better Sleep Council. The gauge of the wire is important, too, in determining durability. The thicker the wire, the better--although again, it's a matter of comfort; the thinner the wire, the softer the suspension. The lower the gauge number, the thicker the wire. So 13 is a heavier gauge than 16.
A thicker mattress is also better quality, because it usually means a thicker wire gauge and more padding. Mattresses generally start at 6 inches, and some top-end models go as high as 21 inches. For those you may need special sheets.
Mattress edges should be well-reinforced, especially if you're inclined to bedside sitting. You might check this by sitting hard on the edge of a mattress. Does it seem sturdy? Does it return to its original shape when you stand up? You shouldn't feel springs at all. Eric Montague, who works in Sealy's public-relations department, suggests this test: See if you can tie your shoe without slipping while sitting on the edge.
Good padding around the coils is essential for comfort and durability. For most beds, retailers can show you cutaways--sample sections of mattress that allow you a glimpse of the inner workings. When looking at cutaways, you might compare wire gauges and the thickness of inner padding.
Stitching on the upholstered cover should be solid throughout. The quality of the upholstery and stitching, which are easy to eyeball, give you a good indication of the overall quality of the bed.
Foam and latex mattresses are less expensive than innerspring models. Better foam mattresses use at least a 2H-pound foam--the heavier the better. Latex is the priciest and highest-performance material. Latex, which conforms to your body, also removes body moisture, keeping you warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. It's resistant to mildew and mites.
Finally, beds are usually sold in sets--a mattress and a box spring--which are designed to work together. Putting a new mattress on an old foundation or a mismatched partner could shorten the life of the bed, not to mention affect the warranty. Box springs should be just that--springs, which act as shock absorbers--and not the cheap wooden foundations some retailers throw in to keep prices down.
Stick to the Basics
Mattress makers are constantly coming up with innovations such as "continuous wire coils" and "individually pocketed coils." But Jim Collins, a Bloomingdale's furniture manager, says new isn't necessarily better in this business.
"Everybody's trying to do something innovative, and they do come up with some good things. But with the old things, there's some consistency in the way they're constructed," he says. "New doesn't mean it's any better; it's just a different way of doing things."
"Keep it simple," chiropractor Brown agrees. "A bed doesn't have to be a complex system; it's just a mattress and a box spring."
Consumer-affairs investigators say to stick with national brands that have a track record; if there's a problem down the road, more-established companies are likely to be around. Warranties should last about ten years.
If you're shopping in the midrange market--$300 to $600 for a twin, $800 to $1,300 for a queen, and $1,000 to $1,800 for a king--top national brands such as Sealy, Serta, Simmons, Spring Air, Stearns & Foster, and King Koil are pretty much the same, confides one retailer, who says "they all copy each other anyway." Consumer-affairs experts warn that retailers often put a higher markup on "exclusive" models.
Where to Shop
Department stores and established furniture stores are good places to buy mattresses because they're likely to have well-stocked showrooms and good track records.
Many stores offer to beat any price, so take them up on it by clipping an ad for a comparable model. Although this strategy is complicated by the different model names, Mattress Discounters' Jennifer Nemecek says, "there are specific questions regarding coil count, thickness, wire gauge, edge support, and box-spring support that they can ask." If you're getting the same answer, then the bed is a comparable bed. The advantage to shopping in stores that sell only beds, she says, is that clerks are more apt to know these details.
Another option is the ultimate in convenience: 1-800-mattress. This company--which has a few showrooms but mostly takes phone and Internet orders--sells national brands and will deliver a mattress to your door, set it up, and cart away your old bed. Customers who like to kick the tires before buying might not go for this. But president Luis Barragan says his company will bring you the bed--a choice of two if you like--and take it away on the spot at no charge if it's found wanting. You also have a 60-day trial period and can exchange--but not return--the product. The business has been around for 28 years and has a satisfactory record with the Better Business Bureau.
What about those specialty back shops that sell custom products designed to fix what ails you?
"It's not necessary to spend a lot of money at specialty shops unless you see something that could be beneficial or of interest to you," says chiropractor Brown.
Jon Studner, CEO of JoAnne's Bed & Back, counters that JoAnne's prices--ranging from $499 to $2,799 for a queen set--are competitive. Its private-label mattresses, made to its specifications, are from such companies as ErgoCare, Tempur-pedic, and Kingsdown. Studner says that Kingsdown has created an in-store mattress that diagnoses an individual's pressure points in seven seconds and helps the sales representative select an appropriate mattress.
"Price is a function of value, and when a mattress fits a person properly, then they should be paying for it," Studner says. "Rather than lying on a sea of beds, you have an expert sales team who can fit the bed for the customer."
Consumer-protection agencies warn against any establishment that uses the following practices:
* The sale that's not a sale: Running continuous "sales" is a favorite ploy whereby a retailer will advertise 50 percent off its "regular" price--and do it 365 days a year. The consumer is deceived into thinking that she's getting an $800 set at half price, when in fact it's comparable to the bed advertised at another store for an "everyday low price" of $400.
"The ads create a sense of urgency," says Eric Friedman of the Montgomery County Consumer Affairs Office. "The only time you look at a mattress ad is when you are looking to purchase one. Therefore they devise a three-day sale as an incentive to buy now. The problem is, one sale goes right into the next."
Friedman says his office has signed two settlements with Mattress Discounters, including one in February 1995 in which the retailer admitted no guilt but paid $50,000 and agreed to discontinue the practice. Mattress Discounters, the area's largest dealer, also paid nearly $1 million in a similar consent agreement in Massachusetts in 1992.
They're not alone. Hecht's and Value City Furniture have signed similar agreements.
Friedman says some retailers get around the continuous-sale restrictions by simply switching the products they're promoting so that the reduced prices can no longer be classified as continuous.
Mattress Discounters' Nemecek says all her company's sales are now legitimate: "In the past 2H years we have changed the focus. Every sale we have is an actual sale."
* Misleading "freebies": While shoppers should take into account some of the extras offered--"free" bed frame, setup, and delivery--it's not a special deal if the retailer routinely offers these things. Many mattress sellers are willing to haggle over the price of a sleep set--and may try to convince you that they're throwing in freebies, when in fact they never charge for delivery, setup, or other services.
* Bait and switch: In the believe-it-or-not category springs an ad for a queen-size bed for $44. The only problem is nobody ever dreamed you'd want to sleep on it.
"They'll tell you, 'I can sell you this one, but it's a two-week wait, and I can sell you this one right now and it's a better bed,' " explains Friedman. "It's called bait and switch, and it's a common tactic."
Proving bait and switch, which is illegal, is hard. To be in violation, the retailer must actually be out of the promotional item when it advertises it. Industry experts agree, however, that the customer should know that a $44 bed will be exactly that--too cheap.
More Shopping Tips
* Try as many sets as possible to find what's comfortable for you--remembering that comfort is an individual thing. With generally uniform standards in quality and warranties, comfort is the most significant difference in a bed.
* Take notes on mattress specifications or collect brochures to help in comparison shopping. If still in doubt, call the manufacturers to find out what names correspond to their standard, premium, and super-premium models. If you can't comparison shop by model names, find a sleep set you like and then see what comfort and support you can get for the same price. Compare coil count, wire gauge, thickness, and padding.
* Consumer Reports recommends that buyers not allow a store to substitute an "equivalent" mattress if the one ordered is out of stock--a condition often in the fine print.
* Spend as much as you can afford. Remember that a mattress should last up to 10 years, and an extra $200 will cost you just pennies a day.
photograph by Robert Daly/Getty
Both 1-800-MATTRESS (www.mattress.com; 800-628-8737) and the American Innerspring Manufacturers (www.aiminfo.org; 800-882-5634) offer brochures on bed buying. The Better Sleep Council (www.bettersleep.org; 703-683-8371) is another good resource.
Washington's Better Business Bureau (202-393-8000) and county consumer-affairs offices keep track of complaints against retailers.
Leading manufacturers often have Web sites, and consumer Web sites exist, too. Check out www.whatsthebest-mattress.com.