Mattress FAQ: Buyer Beware!
Jun 3, 2002 (Updated Jun 11, 2002)
The Bottom Line Name recognition is no assurance. At a minimum, check the retailer and its local supplier via the Better Business Bureau. Visit the factory if at all possible.
Consumer Reports describes mattress shopping as a "greater ordeal" than car shopping. If that's what its like for the experts, woe to the rest of us! It doesn't have to be that way though. This mattress primer will enable you to quickly identify sales gimmicks, save time and ask the right questions. In minutes you can learn what the mattress industry does not want you to know about the product you spend "1/3 of your life on." In short, this guide will help you locate the best value for your money.
Why Lose Sleep Over a Mattress?
Lesson one: Sales Tricks. Retailers nearly always attempt to "upsell" you. They steer you toward a mattress with more bells and whistles after luring you in with low-priced ads for less expensive brands or models. This is called bait and switch and high-low pricing (Sale's over today!).
A salesperson may attempt to show you a cut-away for a model similar but not identical to the mattress you are considering. In so doing, they may make comparisons misleading. Furthermore, the same manufacturer may make a number of labels under a variety of names for a variety of retailers using the same or similar components. This makes it practically impossible to comparison shop even if the retailer claims to offer price matching.
Further eroding the ability to make comparisons are widely varying responses to the same basic question. Ask, "How is this mattress constructed?" and you may hear, "I'm new here," or "I’m not certain." Alternately, a salesperson may fire off a very quick but imprecise response, i.e. "about 600 coils." Go to a different shop and the same mattress has “400 to 500 coils.” Ask to see the spec sheet, if you want to know what you’re getting. All stores have access to them.
In the take-that-with-a-grain-of-salt category, mattress salespeople have a tendency to claim that at least one brand they carry has been rated “Number one by Consumer Reports.” If a brand has been honored in this way, a salesperson should be able to refer you to the exact article in which this glowing praise has been reported. Oddly, many cannot. My own attempts to verify such claims at consumerreports.org failed to turn up anything despite membership access. (Disappointingly, there is only one brief overview on the entire subject of mattress buying on the Consumer Reports web site, as of this date.)
Lesson two: Profit Margin. The mattress industry has one of the highest markups in retail. Yet it takes just 10 to 60 minutes to make a mattress from start to finish. Even a sale is rarely a bargain. A mattress shopper ought not pay the asking price any more than the list price on a vehicle. For example, in one week of shopping, I've priced the same brand/model and noted asking prices differing an average of $200 —all within less than 20 miles of each other! Also note that most of the year sales are ongoing. Often a retailer will attempt to make it sound as if it is the last day at a given price. A day, a week, a month later and the price may remain the same. Ask to see the sale dates in writing when in doubt.
Lesson 3: Fluff & Sag. The most expensive aspect of mattress construction is fabric. Adding wool, silk and layer upon layer of foam or cotton really ups the cost. Before you pay for these perks consider: thick layers of padding are more likely than the springs to compress to the point of feeling like the mattress is sagging. You pay a premium to get something that eventually becomes concave because thick plush or pillowtop components eventually break down even if the springs do not. And unlike an eggcrate or other forms of padding, you can't simply remove and replace it when it does. In any case, regularly rotate and flip your mattress and box spring per manufacturer instructions, otherwise even the most expensive mattress will fail you.
Lesson four: Support vs. Coil Count & Gauge. Orthopedics generally recommend a firm mattress because it will not allow back or stomach sleepers to sag into the surface at unnatural angles. Of the doctors I’ve spoken to, none recommend water, air or foam mattresses because they typically do not provide this level of support. For this reason, a traditional innerspring mattress may be the best choice. Plus, providing that the overall coil-count is decent, a heavy-duty innerspring mattress may also increase the longevity of the mattress for large occupants. Side sleepers, however, may prefer a softer mattress if they have a very curved or rounded figure. Consider though: it is often easier to soften up a firm mattress with the proper bedding than it is to firm up an overly soft one that is causing a backache. But how do you know if a mattress is supportive enough? Try, try, try before you buy and learn what's inside!
Construction-wise, everyone claims to have the best coil-to-gauge ratio. What you may not know is that there are only a handful of innerspring manufacturers creating four general types—offset, continuous, Bonnell and Marshal. Marshal coils are individually pocketed and are less frequently used. This type of coil may not be properly tempered according to one manufacturing web site I visited. Continuous coils look like double-wire spirals or loose ringlets. This creates a network of wire that runs nonstop through the entire bed. Bonnell coils, the oldest in existence, are hour-glass in appearance, round-topped and self tied. Offset coils are more costly but not necessarily better. They feature a straight top and bottom edge that allows them to be aligned easily. Offset coils may be tied off or feature a loose end known as a “sensory arm.” Conceivably, a loose end on every coil could increase the odds that a spring will begin to punch through the padding. Consequently, a sensory-armed coil, like an individually pocketed coil, may not be worth the additional cost.
The truly unseen variable is how innersprings are stored prior to assembly. Some of the factories I've visited, for example, have a potential for exposure to the elements. Some mattress manufacturers even leave their springs outdoors for undetermined periods of time. Potentially, coils could tarnish, if not rust, before they reach the buyer. This practice may eventually lead to noise according to one mattress factory owner I spoke to. Still, the most common source of noise is actually the box spring or foundation and not the mattress itself.
Many premium mattresses feature 14-gauge coils. Coils are measured in quarter increments. The lower the number the thicker the spring. When a coil is 14 to 15.5 gauge, it is essential that the overall coil count be high to compensate for the fact that they give so easily under pressure. One advantage is that with 500- to 800-plus coils depending on size, retailers can impress shoppers with numbers. Nevertheless, Consumer Advocate Clark Howard indicates on his web site* that it takes as few as 312 coils in a full mattress to provide decent/good support. In fact, a 12.5-gauge innerspring, the thickest typically available, may feel rock hard in a double mattress even if the count is less than 400. Note: Sometimes manufacturers firm up their mattresses by using tightly compressed pads and less foam rather than sturdier coils, so it is important to find out how the firmness you experience is achieved. Reading the mattress tag may help in this regard.
The American Innerspring Manufacturers web site recommends that a mattress be at least nine inches deep.** If it is nine inches deep, chances are the number of “half turns” in the coil—of which six is considered best—will be sufficient. What is relevant is the fact that a pillowtop or plush mattress in excess of nine inches will require extra-deep pockets. Shop with a tape measure or prepare to replace your existing bedding. Also take into account the fact that a thicker mattress may raise the total height of the bed from the floor. This may make it more or less difficult to get in and out of bed and in some cases may obscure a low-profile head- or footboard. Sometimes it is possible to obtain a half-height foundation to compensate for a high-profile bed.
Lesson five: Foundations. There are three major types of foundations on the market. The traditional foundation is made of pine or similar wood and features seven or eight support slats beneath cardboard or fiberboard topper. This type of foundation, sometimes called a “zero deflection unit,” will increase the feeling of firmness or stability. A true box spring, by contrast, features extra-heavy-duty springs. Sometimes these springs will match the mattress, in which case it is called a “coil upon coil” box spring. A box spring generally increases the give in the mattress, lending to a softer or bouncier feel. The third type of foundation is a combination of steel and wood, sometimes called a grid foundation.
Some say that a true box spring is more forgiving than a foundation and will increase the lifespan of a mattress. Others say that depending on the way it is made, a box spring may allow the mattress above it to flex too greatly, thereby increasing wear and tear to both the mattress and box spring. A wood foundation, on the other hand, is suitable if well constructed but a steel-reinforced “hybrid” is probably even better.
Lesson six: Cleanliness. There are only a few major sources for fabric (ticking) used in mattress manufacturing. This too may be subject to a less than-pristine industrial environment. Quilts or pads may be stacked on the floor or exposed to open air. One factory I visited even appeared roach infested! Apparently, computer components are built with far more dust/contamination/humidity control. Your best bet is to completely cover the mattress you buy with an allergenic barrier. This is absolutely essential if you suffer from asthma or allergies.
Lesson seven: Refurbished Bedding. Ever wonder what becomes of the mattress that is hauled away after a new one is delivered to your home? Chances are, it falls into the hands of a third-party. New fabric/foam is used to cover recycled springs, which may or may not be legal in your state. Make sure you don’t become an unsuspecting buyer.
Lesson eight: Quality Control. Even national brands vary somewhat in quality depending on the factory or desired retailer. You have three choices: Buy from an ISO-approved source,*** visit the factory or check with your local Better Business Bureau, which may be available online. In some cases, you may actually be better off going to an independent/local mattress manufacturer because they may be more inclined to let you tour the facility or build to order. Additionally, a genuine factory-direct purchase often saves money and will allow you to sidestep middlemen.
Lesson nine: Product Guarantee. A non-prorated warranty is best because repairs are made free of charge for some or all of the warranty period. Even so, a warranty does not necessarily protect you, nor does it indicate how long the product will last. Even a non-prorated warranty will not cover shoddy stitching, thinning or torn fabric, sagging less than two inches deep, or any mattress showing signs of “soiling” (just about any mattress that isn’t perpetually encased in an allergy/waterproof cover could potentially fit this description). The warranty may also be void if you do not use the frame and/or foundation the manufacturer recommends. Last but not least, if a factory rep arrives to inspect a bed and sees a problem on one side of the mattress but not the other—indicating that you have failed to flip and rotate the mattress properly—you will again be out of luck.
Bottom line? There are so many limitations to a mattress/foundation warranty that it boils down to the good graces of the retailer and manufacturer. That's where your local Better Business Bureau comes in handy. Buy from a BBB member or someone with little or no complaint history whatsoever. Remember, even the biggest names in the business may not be BBB members or they may have numerous complaints depending on locality. You'll never know unless you check.
Lesson ten: Substitutions. Read the fine print when you purchase a mattress. Make it clear that you will accept no substitutions. Follow up by making sure what is delivered is what you ordered. Know the return or comfort policy. Get everything in writing and read it before you sign it.
Conclusion: The more you know, the more you will understand that mattress buying is a crap shoot. Most buying guides will tell you to buy from one of the big national brands simply because they can’t vouch for everyone. Even so, the moral of this story is that name recognition is no substitute for doing your homework.
Now you have the facts. Use them to your shopping advantage. If you don't like what you find, take it to the next level—contact the BBB, Federal Trade Commission or even your congressional representative. At the very least, product labeling in the mattress industry is in dire need of comprehensive reform so that consumers may make truly informed choices no matter what a salesperson claims.
* Radio talk show host: ClarkHoward.com
** American Innerspring Manufacturers: aiminfo.org,
*** International Organization for Standardization: iso.org