Remember, you gotta lie in it.

Mar 23, 2002 (Updated May 29, 2002)

The Bottom Line Not all mattress salesfolk are sleazeballs. This essay is a story of Mattress shopping. Is there anything worse to shop for?

I am new to this site and will probably delete and re-establish my account with my full name, Clinton Slayton. I did not realize that the account name defaulted to the author's name, and if you bother to read my opinions, I believe you have the right to know who I am.

(There are several registered trademarks mentioned below. I have tried to make these clear in the context without the fussy little symbols.)

Reading the opinions and evaluations of various submitters, the pattern emerges that there are mysteries in the world of mattress-buying that have not changed since I first put thought to this about thirty years ago when I got my own place. Then came marriage and buying for the two of us and bunk beds for the kids. Am I an expert in such matters? Well, who is? If living beyond 50 years of age and being a victim of sleep problems for many of these does not make me an expert, what does? How many mattresses have you bought? If more than five, you too may be an expert. My evaluations are not based on the fact that you are always in bed to sleep. My doctor once told me sternly, "Sleep Hygienists all agree that the bed is not a library. You should do your reading elsewhere." I had great respect for this doctor, but felt that Sleep Hygienists could K*M*R*I*A (James Joyce's Ulysses, page 145, 1946 Random House edition, "Aeolus" episode). I have been going to bed with books ever since I could read (well, comics to begin with). So we must start with the idea that a mattress is also a sort-of-couch, sort-of-temporary storage shelf, and since I have a "gaming" desktop computer near the foot of my bed, it is also my command center for fighting alien fiends. So I am very frequently head-to-foot on the bed, so to speak. I am sure that mattress salesfolk would tut-tut this and say "Mattress Specialists agree that for the life of the mattress, you should use it only for sleep." Yeah, right.

My bedclothes consist of one fitted sheet, one plain sheet, two standard pillows and a down-filled duvet, which I find to be remarkably light and comfortable year-round, (I keep my thermostat at 72 degrees). I have never used bedskirts, but more about this later.

On the day of this writing, I had to go out and shop for a sleeping rig, since my twin set is hopelessly "sprung" and "dished." A full-grown man on a twin mattress? When you go through a divorce and one of the kids' bunk beds comes your way, you take what you can get. I have a bedroom-office and this small bed worked out well for me. It cuts down on coyness if someone wants to get in bed with me; intimacy is pretty much guaranteed. I eschew the headboard-footboard, so the small footprint of a twin bed and frame does not consume much floor space in my office. I have a frame because I fished one out of the apartment dumpster and found that it had a slightly bent foot and a mangled shaft on a locking-wheel roller. I was going to buy one anyway, but with a locking plier I straightened the foot and found that the slightly bent wheel shaft would still insert and do well enough, since I keep them locked anyway. This is all in the interest of letting you know that I am not made out of money, but a regular Joe who does not pay $7.00 for a cup of, well, regular joe.

I ventured to five stores in the Birmingham AL area. I had flyers from several others, and I narrowed my search to these five. Alabama has mattress fabricators in Birmingham and Cullman, so this is probably not too different from looking for a casket in Batesville. However, I learned many years ago about the power of big buyers: the labels and names of mattresses can say anything as long as they are not the registered trademark names. Just as the big electronics stores can get the manufacturers to "customize" the features and model numbers of electronics components to make finding a review of the exact product difficult to impossible, large buyers of mattresses (many of them department stores) can have any name they want put on the label, and can tell you, "This is the same (or superior) to a [trademark], it comes from the same factory." Who knows, it could be true. But do you want to take the word of a salesperson on this? What if it is, say, your girlfriend's father owns the store, or your brother-in-law that is trying to sell you the mattress? This is what makes mattress shopping the hell that it is.

I looked (in vain) for evaluations of mattresses online. The technical notes on some of the reviews here are the best (and only) I have seen, about "coils and turns." Consumer magazines at completely at sea in this area; they cannot review products that are designated in so slippery a manner that trying to find them in a store is virtually impossible. Pieces in Wall Street Journal and Slate: Elizabeth in WSJ and Seth in Slate both mention the bewildering nomenclature of the various brands, and these are attributed to a desire of the seller to confuse the buyer. This is certainly the effect, but this should also be considered: when one has a bad experience with a mattress, say in a hotel or furnished apartment, one usually pulls up the covers, examines the label, and says "Well, we will never buy a [fill in mattress company name] Golden Soporific Arms of Morpheus mattress!." Of course, the chances are good that 1) you will never see the GSAM in any store, and 2) you may in fact buy this EXACT SAME MATTRESS under another label name without knowing it. As the two journalists point out, there is no way to get straight information about the construction of a mattress by referring to its label name. I am not referring here to the REGISTERED TRADEMARK versions everyone knows: BeautyRest, Perfect Sleeper, PosturPedic, Medic-Coil, etc. Buying one of these costs more but, in my opinion, gives the buyer more leverage if the mattress is unsatisfactory in any way. I don't care if the warranties only cover defects in workmanship. If the mattress turns out to be a dud and I paid for what some salesperson assures me is superior to something else in the store, then by God, he/she will be reminded of those words. I know a woman who can get a salesperson to take back anything that is unsatisfactory, but that is another story.

The good news would seem to be that the non-trademarked mattresses by these same manufacturers may be just as good, but remember, mattresses are made to the specs of institutional buyers for furnished apartments, hospitality industry, rest homes, and hospitals. These can be guaranteed to be not nearly as good as the "trademarked" mattresses. So the bad news is that while you may be hoping for the good news scenario, there is absolutely no way you can tell if you are still standing up. Fortunately, your body can usually tell if is resting on a "contractor's grade" mattress in short order, so ignore what the salesperson is saying if it starts out, "They don't want me to tell you this, but this is the same as the [much more expensive] model, they just do not want to give you the same warranty..." This is usually hokum. They are not saving you from spending more. They have sized you up and will make a good markup off of the junk they are trying to sell you rather than to waste time getting you to buy a more expensive mattress.

Signs of a good mattress salesperson: extremely laid-back (no pun intended), quick to let you know what you probably should not buy from his/her store, and has only one sales gambit: tries to get you to try out the more expensive mattresses. I can only respect this sales technique, since all the whizbang features and pamphlets with recommendations from "famous orthopedic institutions" you never heard of, will never make the thing more comfortable for you (or the two of you). I simply told the salesman, who tried to get me onto a $700 twin set, "It's out of my price range, so I do not want to know how comfortable it is," especially since its main feature was "Do not Disturb Comfort Zones" that have little meaning on a twin bed. I plan to disturb anyone I happen to find in my little bed.

At one store, the saleslady said "Since you are not lying down on any of them I assume that you are coming back?" Since the only decent-looking set she showed me was $649, the answer to this was "No."

Going back to my qualifications for rendering an opinion, I have experienced waterbeds (for over twenty years; I still sleep on it when my sons are visiting), mattresses directly on the floor, mattresses on foundations and on box springs, and the standard mattress on box springs on a bedframe. As a victim of insomnia for many years, I have found access to couches and alternate beds was a necessary aid. The insomnia is something that age and metabolism seem to have taken care of. I cannot, however, speak with any knowledge of futons, which seem sensible enough in the abstract, but I just have not put the time in. Unscientific though they may be, the opinions I am about to register will run counter to the "get the cheapest thing that is comfortable" advice found at one of the pieces mentioned above, and also questions the "why buy box springs?" concept.

I can say with certainty that some mattresses, if laid directly on the floor, will get very quickly "sprung" after the non-sleeping activities many of us like to do in bed. I suppose very expensive mattresses may hold up to this, I wouldn't know, having never bought in the over-$800 range for any mattress. So-called foundations just raise the bed, but good box springs do, in my opinion, give a line of defense against either you or the mattress getting something knocked out of kilter. Having the mattress or mattress-and-whatever on the floor is certainly cheap, but at my age (51), I find getting up from this to be painful for me and noisy for the downstairs tenant (who happens to be the Resident Manager). When your butt is lower than your knees, standing up is going to involve the arms and back more than otherwise. And any noises are going to be transferred through the floor. A slightly "sprung" mattress or box set will make a distinctive "clunk" that may bring back some good memories for you but will not do so for any party/parties downstairs. Since putting my rig on a bedframe, I no longer hear counter-thumping from downstairs every time I have to take a whiz or check the locks and lights. My dumpster discovery was a timely find.

My findings, field work vs (paucity of) published literature:
I had had a very good experience (about 20 years) with a Queen-size Therapedic Medi-Coil (reg trademark) and have, in about five years, worn out a Sealy that gave good service considering it was bought for a little kid to begin with, probably more than ten years ago. At the stores, only two were selling at the marked prices. The other stores had a Sale sign in front, and a couple turned out to be owned by the same outfit, and the salesmen had to consult (or pretend to consult) a price list that seemed to show remarkable consistency: everything a hundred dollars off, which would seem a simple thing to remember without having to look up. One gets the distinct feeling that if you just walk in and don't talk to the salesperson and walk out, you will never know the "real price." They are certainly glad to take your money if you offer the marked price, but curiously, those that bragged about "no haggle" were also the most expensive, and they offered store brands that were total mysteries to me. The very first store had a label that indicated that the mattress was made in Birmingham, and that it was that same as Serta but not so marked. It was priced significantly lower than Serta's trademarked mattress. This may have deserved more effort on my part, but I did not even try it out, figuring that I would come back if necessary (all of these stores were within a fifteen-to-twenty mile radius, which in Birmingham geography, is "nearby.")

There is a consensus that "Pillow top" is a waste of money, and I agree. You can get the same effect much more cheaply by buying a pad. If the mattress is well-designed, why would you ever need this anyway? Pillow-tops also add a little pocket to collect the kind of indescribable crap you find wedged into the couch cushions and any other superfluous upholstery details you may have.

Firm, extra-firm, metamorphic/sedimentary and other descriptors are not very meaningful for a twin mattress, so in this area I am letting you down. I am buying a twin, and it is very difficult for such a small mattress not to be firm, if it is well made. I can remember that our ca 1980 TheraPedic MediCoil (Queen Size) started out Extra Firm and pretty much stayed that way for a long time. However, there should be no question about the frame should a twin fail; they have no requirement for an extra support on the frame, the absence of which would otherwise void the warranty.

The whole "Coil Number" controversy was confusing, but at least one salesman (the one I ended up buying from) said," A large number of coils means they are smaller. If they are designed well, they will be good. If not, then a smaller number of large coils will wear just as well. It is how they are mounted, how they are turned, whether they are steel or aluminum, and the gauge of the metal that counts." This seemed to make sense to me and also allowed me to shake my head and pretend to understand all about metal gauges, as all men do. I then got to play with the models of all the spring/coil mechanisms, as all men do.

There have been many attempts to con buyers with "comfort zones" in the springing or foam that seem to make sense while the salesperson is explaining them, but fly in the face of commonsense. With the variety of body types and sleeping habits, how can anything but a very expensive apparatus perform this for everyone? And many of these "comfort zones" are accomplished by a piece of foam exactly like the much cheaper version you can but at any department store.

After an afternoon of laying down, my short list: TheraPedic Medi-Coil Posture Control 1000 ($300), Therapedic Medi-Coil Something or other that was $100 more, with Pillow Top ($400), Sealy PosturPedic Mulberry (Cushion Firm) ($378), Simmons BeautyRest Ventressa (sp?) "No Flip" ($400).

I simply could not find a comfortable set for less than $300. Most of the "$299 marked down to $199" models were horrible in every way. All models below $300 had "contractor" or "all right for a under 150lb kid, maybe" written all over them.

The idea of buying just the mattress caused such horror among the salesfolk, like buying a car without that fabulous underspray and dealer enhancement, that I felt perverse enough to force the issue, but my life experiences have lead me to the mattress-on-box-springs-on -frame, as mentioned above.

The Sealy PosturPedic was in the middle range of price and was very comfortable. Covering fabric met my criteria of being so nondescript that I cannot remember it. However, I found the "Flip if you want 2" label so mealy-mouthed as to be offensive. Stand up and be a man! If mattress life is extended by flipping head-to-foot and over, then say so! Otherwise why would I ever WANT to flip a mattress? (Assuming there was no one else on it.) Sitting on the edge of it was fairly reassuring, and this is a major test for a mattress that is going to be in combination office/bedroom, since the bed is also a sort of couch, admittedly not what it is designed for, but I mentioned this at the top, didn't I? I also liked the fact that the exact same mattress could be bought with firm cushion top or a plush cushion, without the hokey "Pillow Top." These considerations put it on the short list.

The "No Flip" variety does have the disadvantage of leaving no recourse for nasty stains, but I must comment that the Simmon BeautyRest "no-flip" model was very comfortable. Flipping a twin bed is not onerous enough to spend an extra hundred to avoid, but it was on my very short list, and is still in the "maybe I shoulda bought that" area of my brain. The fabric was brown. I remember no flowers or Islamic-looking abstractions. Sitting on the edge was especially reassuring, if not numbing. This is the one I had to keep going back to.

The Pillow Top TheraPedic Medi-Coil was covered in a girly fabric that I would have to hide every inch of. It was very comfortable but not $100 more comfortable than the PC 1000 Medi-Coil, which had the much-more-manly "damask gold" fabric that looks o.k. to me on its own. The Pillow Top and PC 1000 were in Queen Size on this showroom, and the edge-sitting experience was compromised by lack of space. In the process of flipping it to test the handles (the best that I have used, since they are designed differently from every other mattress that I have seen, going perpendicular to the edges and not parallel; they feel rock solid. You notice this stuff if you have ever moved your household by yourself a couple of times) I was able to slip the mattress down to the floor and sit on it edgewise. No problems. The PC 1000 had fewer coils than the Pillow Top model, but was comparable to the Simmons and Serta, and happened to be the least expensive of the lot. With my experience with the trademarked brand (albeit 20 years ago) I went with the PC 1000.

Added to these comments on March 29, this paragraph - The PC 1000 does not pass the "weight" test mentioned by another submitter. It is extremely "lofty" (tall) and very lightweight. I am told that the springs are steel, but I don't know.... But since this mattress has to be flipped, heavy weight did not seem attractive to me.

Was money the only consideration? I made several trips back to the Simmons and very nearly made a return trip to the store after writing the check for the TheraPedic, and then my "Watch out for obsessive worrying about decisions you have made" brain chemistry kicked in, and I went out looking for bed skirts, which was a much greater cause for worrying. I have a table near the head of my bed, which is made of particle board and is clearly supposed to be covered with a cloth, but I have left it uncovered in its natural ugliness lo these many years. In seeking a tablecloth for a 36-inch round table that is only a foot off of the ground, I realized that I had no mental tools for the task. Is it a tablecoth I need? Is there a foreign word for this that I am unaware of and cannot pronounce anyway, so I cannot even ask for what I need? In the process of overcoming this and learning that, yes, tablecloths are made for little round tables, I became emboldened to go the next step and hide the otherwise exposed frame and box springs of my new bed set. I called my ladyfriend and told her that I had bought two bedskirts and when I got them home, decided that the colors did not work, and she said "You are turning into a woman." Be that as it may, I asked her what she remembered her mattress-buying experience was like: she loved the one she found, and considered herself very lucky to have found it on sale. What did she pay? She couldnít remember. What was the brand? She couldn't remember. No, I have not turned into a woman yet.

The idea that you should buy the very cheapest thing that is comfortable for you has some merit, as long as your comfort includes not second-guessing yourself on something that you are going to spend one-third of your living time on (for the life of you or the mattress, whichever ends first.) And a 15-year warranty on defects is no small consideration, which the more-expensive TheraPedic had. The less-expensive mattresses will not have such a grand warranty, but as long as they are not pro-rated, there is the fact that identical products are offered all the time at different prices, the only difference being the warranty offered.

I would say that I bought the least expensive mattress I could find that was comfortable for both my mind and body. Someday I will review the mattress set for the "specific" mattress section.

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