February 1, 2014 - Marshall Coyle
Why Mattresses Are So Darn Thick, And Is Thicker Better?
For oatmeal, yes. For mattresses, usually not.
This is true for most foam and all innerspring mattresses, and there is a personal connection to the phenomenon. I am sure that I did not invent “perceived value”, but back in the ‘fifties, I thought I did. All innerspring mattresses were padded on both sides and never thicker than seven or eight inches. Latex was usually four inches, rarely five, and almost never padded. Mattress ticking was almost all cotton and most mattresses were made with dozens of metal buttons attached to cords under tension that went to the opposite side. All box springs had real coil springs. Choices were very limited. I soon became aware that customers who had no real way to determine quality seemed to value thicker and smoother mattresses more than thinner and tufted mattresses.
Directly or indirectly my perceived need was for higher markups. The industry standard in the industry language 75 years ago was “a number”, or “one number”. A very simple method for even the most math-challenged shopkeeper was to double the cost. You could multiply by two or even do it by addition. My goal was to get mattresses that were made to my own specifications by name brand manufacturers. Two of these makers are still in business, Simmons and Sealy. The Simmons family owned and operated the business. Sealy was a group of individually owned local factories making mattresses to the franchisor’s specifications. Price maintenance “Fair Trade” national laws put in place by racist conservative Republicans elected under Hoover, authorized manufacturers to place minimum selling prices on their branded mattresses. This Great Depression law which protected Sears, Penneys, and WASP owned department stores from price cutting first and second generation European immigrants who owned most of the small stores in the country.
A Beautyrest and/or a Sealy Posturepedic sold at retail for $39.50 and cost me $21.50 and the price protected department stores paid $20,00. No negotiating. Twin and full size were the same price and there was only one quality. The Beautyrest in the early fifties was about seven inches thick covered in a blue/white/orange striped heavy cotton covering. Of course it was reversible and it was deeply button tufted. A heavy tape was stretched between the top and bottom and held in place by circular metal buttons. The innerspring was an in-house made proprietary hand-assembled wonder of muslin pockets with light wire coils sewn in place. When every other mattress had a few hundred coils at most, the Beautyrest had the equivalent of today’s 800 coil mattress and was very flexible. Virtually all of the upholstery padding was high quality felted cotton fibers. The button tufts piercing the mattress and keeping the springs under tension kept the mattress in shape. Even as it sometimes spent decades on a soft coil spring base, flexing, it never sagged or collapsed. It was a wonderful product for sleeping, but not so good for profit.
The Posturepedic rose to prominence, challenging Simmons after World WarTwo. The Posturepedic was also price fixed making it illegal for any retailer to sell at a lower price than the major stores. It also was very thin by current standards and also had a proprietary coil innerspring that was less flexible than the Beautyrest but capable of being far firmer. Sealy bombarded the country with magazine and early television ads proclaiming, “No Morning Backache From Sleeping On A Too Soft Mattress”. The idea resonated and the customers came. To be even more competitive, Sealy developed a way to conceal the tufts under the cover and make their Posturepedic more visually appealing.
When I opened my first store, I groped for a way to offer better value and service to give everyone a reason to buy from me and not the great big store down the block. It was illegal to cut price but for shopkeepers willing to do it, the reward was a ringing cash register. For you younger readers who may have never heard or seen a cash register, they were ornamental boxes with number keys, a cash drawer, and moving numbers on top to show the amount of the transaction. Today ringing the register is just a phrase, but when I had the obligation of caring for a growing family and a few employees, it was music to my ears. I had to haggle to make the sale, but hated it enough to change the system. The other sure fire way of improving business was actually giving wonderful service. My competition took weeks to make deliveries and then wouldn’t even put the new mattress on a customer’s bed. We gave immediate same day or tomorrow delivery, placed the mattress and removed the old one. But the real way to open the floodgates was offering demonstrable value in addition to the superior service.
From my vantage point of being on the sales floor six days a week and interacting 60 or 70 hours a week with shoppers, I listened as much as I spoke. Customers almost universally disliked button or similar lace-tufted mattresses. It was much easier to sell a smooth than a tufted mattress even if the tufted mattress might be much better. At the same time, I became aware that most shoppers equated thicker mattresses with more comfort.
Even though I sold tons (literally) of Beautyrests and PosturePedics the cost of the surreptitious discounts and the extreme customer service kept us from growing and doing what we went in business for. Making money. The answer was in designing new combinations of springs, filling, and most important, outside appearance. Getting them made by the same suppliers was one of the hardest negotiations I have ever undertaken, but slowly and steadily, our display floor sported recognizable names on unrecognizable mattresses. Because these mattresses were negotiated for and the name brands that made them saved advertising and other expenses, our wholesale price was very favorable. Our margins (the difference between wholesale and retail) climbed. We found ourselves with substantial income and plowed it back into an unprecedented advertising program. I am condensing years of struggle and the usual wrong steps into a success story.
After some years of growth, we were large enough to often get just what we wanted with our buying power. Success breeds success and we were doing very well, but still having to be furtive about underselling Macy’s and the other department stores. Our display consisted of twenty five, no more, no less, brand and private label mattresses and each one looked like a good value at it’s assigned price. None were available elsewhere. Not just different labels as is today’s practice, but, at least in my opinion, better inside ingredients and visibly better exteriors.
From the beginning until the early seventies, the concept of buying a mattress and box spring for one combined price hadn’t surfaced. Mattresses and matching box springs sold for the exact same price even though the box spring cost the maker far far less. Some of the facts are getting hazy from the weeks of the big mattress bang. I decided to openly break fair-trade fixed prices and do it very visibly. My math showed a large enough increase in sales volume would prove profitable. If we gave a price war and no one showed up, of course, we would have been losers. We placed full page ads in major city papers and floods of radio commercials, all with the same offering. Sealy Posturepedic, Buy the Mattress and Get the Box Spring free. Just another way to say “half price”. Prior to the advertising, we bonded with a non-local Sealy Franchise who sold us carloads at a discount as well as more carloads of custom made private label mattresses and discontinued dealing with our local department-store-loving Sealy Franchise. The outcome from a profit and loss viewpoint was exceptional and our town got to know us a lot better. Of course, we lost a valued relationship with the local supplier and regret it to this day, but our new supplier proved a staunch friend in the decades to follow. And, by the way, Fair Trade just died away, forgotten and unloved.
The mattress business was coming into its own around that time. Sleep Shop chains were opening in every town and neighborhood. Department stores were enlarging their departments. Big box stores, also a fairly new phenomenon, added their competition, one visionary started a telephone selling business. This was fueled by the rise of queen and kingsize as new profit sources, and crazes such as the waterbed. The invention of inexpensive polyurethane foam brought smooth and firm sleep sets to short-lived popularity. Heat sensitive visco-elastic chemical foam was soon to be invented. As innerspring got thicker and thicker to justify higher and higher prices. Tempur-pedic came out with a foamed mattress material that could be made in any firmness and still be durable. Some, but not most who tried it, found it comfortable. Many would be owners have been put off by undesirable odors. No matter what, TempurPedic made a high priced and very thin mattress that they marketed very effectively and have become part of the establishment. Unfortunately with very thick foam mattresses that have all the bad points of foam and not many of their good original product. Thick sells for them and every other maker.
When the current century rolled around some makers were experimenting with one-sided innerspring mattresses that can not and/or need not be turned. These are even thicker, and many are not standing the test of time. Over-greedy major makers one-sided mattresses are proving less durable than most of the mattress constructions that they replaced. Never the less, they cost less to make, and as they are so thick, still command high prices. As it is easily possible at a few smaller and excellent traditionally factory-direct makers, to find no turn mattresses that are as, or even more, durable than the two sided that they replace, I am certainly not condemning all one sided mattresses. I mention some in the following paragraph.
As I blame myself for the roots of the make-it-thicker movement, I apologize to anyone who has purchased a fat and fluffy one sided mattress that prematurely died. If I am re-incarnated I will never do it again. If you take the time to follow this blog and agree with my opinions, you might become a smarter shopper. Consumer Reports last month did one of their recurring mattress reviews and gave three mattresses top ratings. All three are around 13″ thick and will be dwarfed by almost everything else in the stores. These three from Simmons, Sealy, and Charles P. Rogers, have pocketed coils like the Beautyrest I trained on in the fifties, only better. None have fluff, just good flexible materials, and two of them are around $1,200 in queen size. This really proves some of my points.