Monday, May 25, 2009

Braving the mattress sales

When I bought my first mattress almost ten years ago, the whole thing was blissfully simple. I was just out of college, broke, and trying to buy all the basics for an apartment on a budget near zero.

I called Sleepy's and asked, "What's your cheapest mattress?" "$400," said the phone salesman. "Ah," I said, honestly chagrined. "My budget maxes out at about $200." "We can do that." Me: "Er, what?" Him: "$200, we can do that. When do you want it delivered?"

In retrospect, there's every chance my $200 mattress is whatever they picked up that morning from customers disposing of old mattresses. I have no idea what brand it is. It has no features, unless you consider "coils, mostly functional," a feature. It's iridescent blue and designed to be flipped, which I gather is no longer the done thing.

But when you're 21 and coming off three years of dorm mattresses, anything feels fine, and I slept happily on this for almost a decade. Until a few months ago, when I noticed that I could distinctly feel a few of the coils through the increasingly thin fabric. I started making noises at David about replacing it at some soonish point.

Then River got sick, and had a few accidents on our bed. Nature's Miracle is indeed amazing stuff, but I'm pretty sure not even Jesus could pull off the miracle of fully de-stinking our mattress. Replacing it suddenly gained urgency.

This time around, I felt obligated to approach The Mattress Hunt a bit more methodically than I did last time. (David delegated the task to me, claiming that he could sleep on anything and fully trusted my judgment on the matter. Translation: He really hates shopping.) So I started looking up information on what mattresses cost and what newfangled breakthroughs these modern-day, no-flip mattresses contain.

And -- woah. I don't have a car, but I imagine car shopping feels similar. "Sticker price" appears to be a complete fiction. You have to choose among all sorts of competing technologies -- memory foam, latex, natural fiber or synthetic, seventyzillion coils or no coils at all -- the salespeople are full of dire warnings about the consequences of choosing wrong ("Do you want to wreck your body with discomfort for one third of every day???"), and the prices are steep. Never mind $200 -- should I be spending $500 of $5,000 on this thing?

This is where I reveal my bad-consumer side. When it comes to major purchases, I hate the decisionmaking stage. My friend Karawynn will pour over Consumer Reports and read every scrap of available research before investing in a major household object. I tend to do a bunch of basic research, then get fed up and pull the trigger in a fit of "I just want this over with." After months of thinking about buying a new PC, I got my current one by one night simply getting annoyed with my constantly crashing desktop, going on eBay, and buying the first thing with a reasonable-looking price and enough oompf to run my word processor and Web browser.

So for the mattress, I tried to get a handle on the basics. I read New York magazine's I Slept on 100 Mattresses. It scared me. Removable top layers? Too springy? Too quicksandy? How would I know? $3,395!? Eek!

Then I hit Slate's Going to the Mattress, which hit the other extreme. Stevenson's basic premise is, "It's just a mattress, they're all interchangeable, buy the cheapest." The article was written not long after I bought my $200 special; I'm not sure if mattress technology really has come a long way in the past decade or if I'm just very easily sucked in by marketing hyperbole, but the Slate piece felt like simpler advice for simpler times.

But it did have some invaluable tips, including this detail: "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."

Ah! That kept me from even trying to use Sleepy's "We beat anyone's price by 20%" coupon -- not much use if it's a "guarantee" impossible to collect on because no one else "happens" to stock the same models.

Since I did at least want to try before buying this time, I headed to Macy's yesterday. I'd originally planned to go to a Sleepy's store or other mattress shop, but my friend Amy, who is also mattress-hunting, insisted Macy's had a better selection and comparable prices. Macy's in Manhattan is perennially a zoo, but the one in downtown Brooklyn was pretty empty, even amid the Memorial Day sales.

After a few glances at the mattress sales tags, which featured minimal text and explanation, I ended up giving up entirely on trying to "shop" by feature -- latex? foam? coils? I had no idea which I wanted -- and just road-tested a few. And ... they mostly felt alike. I could feel some slight differences between styles, and could tell if I was on a "plush" or "firm" variation, but which did I prefer? No clue.

Thirty or so mattresses later, I was getting slightly dizzy from the constant vertical-to-horizontal variation and still had only vague leanings toward one or two mattresses. Tempurpedic I hated instantly -- it felt like it would swallow me -- and a few mattresses with "pillowtops" that could hide elephants also went into my "no way" pile. But beyond that ... I tried $5,000 mattresses and $500 mattresses, and they felt different but neither was clearly better. At least, not for me. I just couldn't tell in a few minutes of lying around how I'd feel on each after a night of sleeping.

I had two mattresses I kept gravitating toward, though whether that was a real preference or simply a burning desire to make some kind of choice, I honestly couldn't say.

One was a Sealy and one was a Simmons. I copied down all the sales specs and headed home for some attempts at comparative Googling. The Simmons was, shockingly, Googleable: "Simmons Beautyrest NxG 250" turned up in a few outlets, generally for a few hundred less than it was priced at Macy's. On the other hand -- even with sales, discounts, rebates and whatever else crammed in, it was still over $2,000. Which seemed excessive.

The other mattress I was eying was a Sealy "Loring Park" Euro Pillowtop Firm. The "Loring Park" part was clearly the retailer-specific branding mentioned in Slate. A pretty stupid branding, at that. "Loring Park"? Other variations on this model appear to be the "Candle Glow," "Hidden Meadow," and "Pecan Ridge." Pecan Ridge? Are they naming these things with Mad Libs?

The "Loring Park"'s most salient feature was its price tag: Nominally $1,099, but on "Memorial Day sale" for $999 plus an extra 10% off. (I use the scare quotes because I imagine the mattresses are always on some sort of "special" sale.) Since I only wanted a mattress, no box spring (we're upgrading the mattress, but our bed remains the $150 Ikea platform bought back in the original-apartment-furnishing whirlwind), I knew it would be a bit cheaper.

Even though I didn't buy a set, Macy's waived the delivery charge, and I got an additional 10% off by opening a Macy's card account. So, final tally, with taxes, no-boxspring, sales, etc all factored in: $700.

Which seems not too terrible for my first plunge into the horrors of mattress shopping. Now to find out how we like sleeping on this thing ...