Going to the Mattresses

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Nov. 23 2000 2:30 AM

Going to the Mattresses

How to cut through the marketing gimmicks of Sealy, Serta, and the rest.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Here's a fun game I play. First, I walk into a mattress store and ask what's on sale. Then, I throw my hands in the air and shout along with the salesman, "EVERYTHING'S ON SALE!!!!" Oh how we laugh, the salesman and I. And while he's still chuckling, I turn around and walk out, because I fricking hate mattress salesmen.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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Is there a more maddening industry? They confuse us with silly product names (the Sealy Posturepedic Crown Jewel Fletcher Ultra Plush Pillowtop or the Sealy Posturepedic Crown Jewel Brookmere Plush?). They flummox us with bogus science ("pocketed coils"? "Microtek foundations"? "Fiberlux"?). And they weigh us down with useless features (silk damask ticking?). It's like buying a used car, and almost as expensive—I've seen mattresses going for $7,000. What's a consumer to do?

The secret to mattress shopping is that the product is basically a commodity. The mattress biz is 99-percent marketing. So just buy the cheapest thing you can stand and be done with it, because they're pretty much all the same. And that's all you need to know. But do read on—the world of sleep products is quite fascinating, and I'd like to share it with you.

What's the Best Brand?

Innerspring mattresses, particularly the Big S's (Simmons, Serta, Sealy), dominate the market. But how to choose among Serta and Sealy, Stearns and Foster, and King Koil? Or for that matter, between the Simmons Beautyrest Exceptionale Lenore and the Simmons Beautyrest Do-Not-Disturb Royalty Ultra?

Here's the lowdown: Mattress makers rename identical products for each different retail store. Different labels, exact same guts. Why? Obfuscation. It's hard to shop for the lowest price when you can't compare apples to apples. Lucky for you, they're all subtle variations on the same apple—not only within each brand, but even among different brands.

The heart of an innerspring mattress is the coils. Otherwise it's just foam, cotton, quilting, and stitches. But the big-name mattress makers (with some exceptions) all get their coils from a single company, Leggett and Platt, for their highest-end mattresses down to their lowest. This is akin to every single car on the market, Lamborghinis to Kias, using an engine made by Ford. Except that mattresses are far less complicated than cars. In fact, they're so simple that there's no real difference among them at all.

Upshot: Ignore brand names. They're meaningless. Just pay attention to comfort. Which leads us to our next question:

How Firm Should My Mattress Be?

Herein lies the central mattress paradox. You sleep on coils because they're softer than the floor, but you still want good, firm coils, but then you put foam padding on top to soften the coils, but you still want the foam to be dense, and then finally you put a strong box spring underneath for just a tiny bit of give. All this shuttling back and forth on the scale of firmness—why not just start with the firmness you like, and then stop? My favorite mattress name encapsulates the paradox: Simmons Beautyrest World Class Granite Plush. Granite Plush???

Let's break down each mattress feature that creates firmness, or softness, or both.

Coil Counts and Wire Gauges: When I began, coil counts and wire gauges seemed the key to everything. I talked to several bedding journalists who had desperately sought these numbers from the mattress makers, but had long failed to penetrate the shroud of secrecy. I figured these stats were the empirical measure: More and thicker coils mean fuller and better support. But I soon found it's not that simple. Some mattresses use more coils but thinner-gauge wire. Some use thicker wire but fewer coils. And everyone uses radically different configurations that make comparisons meaningless.

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