Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Princess and the Pea...

For some time I've needed a new mattress, but I didn't realize how much I needed one until I went to AZ in May for Mike's graduation. The hotel I stayed in had sleep number beds, and I cranked mine up to a very firm setting and got my first good night's sleep in a long, long time.

When I got back to Dallas I began researching mattresses. This is not an easy thing to do, because mattress manufacturers rename identical products for each different store that sells them. I don't know of any other commodity for which this is done, but for mattresses it's perfectly legal. I knew from personal experience that the result is confusion for the buyer, but I didn't realize until I began looking into it that this is also the
purpose of the practice: to confuse the buyer, so that you can't find the lowest price for any particular model. I know that this sounds like a paranoid delusion, but it's a fact.

It wasn't always this way. Ironically, the practice came about after trade laws were passed in the 1970's prohibiting manufacturers from setting a price floor (a minimum sales price) for mattresses. Although the goal was to help consumers by keeping prices competitive and therefore low, the result has been the opposite. A proliferation of discount mattress showrooms opened up after these laws were passed, selling mattresses for prices that were often considerably lower than department stores. In response, department stores negotiated with mattress manufacturers to provide "exclusive" department store models. That doesn't sound so bad, until you realize that the thing that makes these models exclusive is usually very minor: it might be something as insignificant as the color of the ticking, or the pattern of the stitching, or there may be a few more or less coils, etc. But no salesperson will tell you that, and the result is that in 2010, each mattress company manufactures a few different mattresses that are then marketed with dozens of different names, making it impossible for consumers to compare prices and get the best deal. This practice is a manufacturers dream, and it's now so widespread that even discount stores carry models that are exclusive to them.

As if that weren't enough, the price of mattresses, like everything else, have risen astronomically. Google "most expensive mattress" and you'll find the Vividus by Hastens for...drum roll...$59,750.00. That's right; by the time you add tax and shipping, over $60,000 for a mattress. Seriously? Of course, I wasn't looking at the Vividus. In fact, I decided after sleeping on the sleep number mattress that I didn't want an innerspring mattress at all, but I have a king size bed, and king size sleep number mattresses, manufactured by either Select Comfort or their parent company, Comfortaire, ran anywhere from $1100 to over $3000.

Two of my brothers have Tempurpedic mattresses and love them, so I decided I'd also check out memory foam mattresses. A couple of weeks ago, I went to Brookstone's at NorthPark where I spent a very relaxing half-hour on two Tempurpedic models (15 minutes on each). Both of them felt wonderful, but the price for a king size ran from $1700 (mattress only)/$2200 (mattress and foundation) to $4,000 (mattress only)/$4500 (mattress and foundation). A boatload of money!

12 years ago I spent a boatload of money on the mattress and box springs I'm now replacing: a top of the line Serta pillowtop. It came with with a 20-year-warranty but that didn't keep it from sagging, beginning at about year 8. Sagging in year 8 isn't covered under the warranty (of course) but suppose the mattress had a manufacturing defect...what would be covered? With Serta, I'd be responsible for 1/10 the dealer retail price times the number of years used. I paid $1200 for the mattress and box springs set, so multiply $120 x 8 years...under the warranty, I'd be responsible for $960
plus shipping costs...some warranty, huh? It's similar for other manufacturers, e.g., the Select Comfort Sleep Number bed has a 20-year limited warranty. If your bed fails in the first 2 years, you're in luck: replacement is totally covered. However, after that, the consumer is responsible for paying 20% of the retail cost plus 4% for each year since purchase. So if you paid $2000 and the pump failed in year 6, your out-of-pocket cost to get the mattress fixed under the 20-year warranty would be $880, plus shipping and handling (of course).

All of which left me thinking I didn't want to spend a boatload of money on a mattress this time around. But what were my alternatives? Here's a great site where I read a lot about mattresses: The first thing I discovered at this site is that memory foam mattresses have the highest consumer comfort rating: 81%. This is followed by an 80% comfort rating for air beds, 79% for water beds, 78% for latex, 66% for futons and 61% for innersprings (!!!). The site has received and sorted over 9,000 consumer reviews on mattress types, and provides a breakdown of how many reviewers responded for each type of mattress, e.g., 4476 for memory foam, but just 253 for water beds, so 79% of 253 water bed users rated water beds as comfortable.

The site also provides comfort ratings by mattress brand, and mattress type is listed after mattress brand. I spent hours looking up memory foam mattresses on the internet using this table, and in doing so, I read about off gassing, defined as the evaporation of volatile chemicals in non-metallic materials at normal atmospheric pressure.
The chemicals used in making memory foam are, for the most part, petroleum based, and those chemicals, and some of the fire retarding agents (e.g., PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers), emit fumes that can cause reactions in people with chemical sensitivities. Off gassing occurs with all mattress types, including innerspring mattresses.

I looked at and read about mattresses sold at a number of places, including Costco, Sam's, Walmart, and as well as mattresses sold only online, and I read endless customer reviews of individual mattresses. As expected, reading the reviews confirmed that no mattress is right for every person. For example, although 87% of Tempurpedic customers love their mattresses, 13% do not, and some of the 13% who don't love Tempurpedics really hate them! I learned that no matter what the cost, most mattresses can be expected to last without noticeable deterioration for about half the warranty, ergo, 5 years for a mattress with a 10-year-warranty; 8 to 12 years for a mattress with a 20-year-warranty.

So what did I end up buying? And where did I buy it, and how much did it cost? To be continued...


Veronica Wald said...

I too rant-blog about the retail world, though what irritates me most is the regular, and unaccountable, disappearance of great products from the market.
I scrolled down to see you once had connections in Hyde Park, which is where I live. What department was your son-in-law graduated from? Lots of little notes about life in Hyde Park and at the University of Chicago and its affiliate where I now work, NORC, in my blog as well.

Ashley Corss said...

Can't wait to know how much the mattress per site