April 29, 2014 - Marshall Coyle
Marshall, Help Me! “Which is the best mattress”?
Continued from home page… I apologize for the length of these essays. Because of swollen hands I can no longer type. I dictate and talking is easy and relatively speedy. So brevity suffers. Please stick with me. I value your time as much as mine, but I really believe that knowledge is power when you shop. I want to share as much of my mattress knowledge with you as I can.
Given the perverse nature of mattress shopping, the specialized knowledge I can share with you is really important. Not just for the money you should save, but for getting a properly fitted mattress that will serve for many years. If you plan on submitting a SURVEY, figure about half an hour of your time to do it well. You really could spare yourself, but if you are planning on venturing out on your own, you will be so happy that you spent some time reading this essay first. If you haven’t yet visited your neighborhood sleep shop or department store you are in for a visually soothing experience. What could be more relaxing than a sea of almost identical brown white and beige large cloth rectangles with price tags pinned to them? They all look pretty much alike regardless of brand name because they are mostly very much like. Even the sales people that you meet during your day of exhausting shopping start to seem like twins (or triplets) separated at birth. Only two companies combined make nearly 80% of all American mattresses. One company makes TempurPedic, Sealy Posturepedic, and the new Cocoon, as well as Stearns and Foster. The other half of the duopoly makes Serta Perfect Sleeper & iComfort, and Simmons Beautyrest and BeautySleep.
These investor and/or publicly owned companies buy a majority of their mattress components ready-to-assemble from many countries, similar to what all automobile companies now do. The bits and pieces that require a lot of labor are sourced mostly from low cost countries like China or Mexico. Major components such as innerspring units, mattress ticking, foundations, and even memory foam are often sourced mostly from one maker and importer, Leggett and Platt, a large, well respected public company. Prior to the nineties, mattress companies made most their innersprings and smaller components in-house. The impetus for the major change was as usual, money. A revolving door of new owner/investors sold off cheaply acquired manufacturing assets to cash-rich Chinese buyers. Machines such as multi-million dollar coil winding machines were a means of getting instant returns for their investors. The eager buyers in the beginning were newly minted, government-subsidized Chinese mattress makers catering to China’s emerging middle class. Chinese government cheap loans made everything seem to work. Actually, it did for the burgeoning Chinese mattress industry, now hugely successful, that daily sends deck loads of 40′ containers of crushed, vacuum packed, rolled, and boxed mystery foam mattresses across the Pacific ready for millions of Americans to sleep on.
Many of these Chinese mattresses are shipped almost but not quite ready to deliver to you. A tiny seam-sewing detail or two finishes the mattress. The most important of these “details” is adding the “Made in California”, or Arizona white “do not remove” law labels. I can’t provide more detail without violating a confidence, but the stories I have been hearing make a whole lot of sense. A typical boxed queen size innerspring mattress covered with a thin layer of synthetic mystery foam wholesales in the Shanghai region for as little as $37.50. A kind of platform bed, an almost ready-to-assemble metal spring on legs sells in China for about $15-$20. When I visit Amazon and search “innerspring mattress”, and sort with lowest price first, the $20.00 100% mystery foam Shanghai mattress is now $119-$199 in the USA, and the accompanying $20 metal beds are anywhere from $49-$199. $30-$50 “better” crushed and boxed solid mystery memory foam Chinese mattresses are also available from numerous beautiful Internet-only newby mattress brands for $300-$900. These are the kind that let you “avoid shopping in stores”, and give you up to six months free trials. There are few quality variations. Most have lots of five star ratings. That is a whole ‘nother story. But the short version is that you should always check the one and two star rating first because they tend to be the only legitimate ones. Most five star mattress reviews, sometimes 99% are NOT from verified customers.
Good mattresses, fairly priced, are still made in the USA. Very expensive, very good mattresses are imported in small quantities from Europe. Europe leaves their low-end “promotional” mattresses at home. But names like Duxiana, Carpe Diem, ViSpring, Savoir, Hastens, and a few others make it here with price tags that will keep you up at night. A 440# Danish hand-made set offered for sale by Hastens on Madison Avenue NYC this winter can be in your bedroom for only $150,000. (+delivery) It has a great deal of really attractive exterior hand sewing and is really about three mattresses in one humongous tall covering, but the #1 Consumer Reports-rated $1,500 “Made in New Jersey” innerspring/latex/hybrid is not only $148,500 less expensive, but, if anything, is more comfortable for more people, and will remain so for years longer with no turning needed. This is no miracle at all. Just highly innovative American thinking by a small company, taking advantage of technology and metallurgy undreamed of even ten years ago. The “old world” has advanced science and makes great cars, but there are no better mattresses than those made close to home. Hastens and their European cohorts, as well as top American companies like Shifman, Kluft, and Royalpedic are selling mattresses made with archaic materials and assembly techniques to people who are financially successful somehow, but have not yet learned that “if it costs more, it must be better” is not necessarily the best way to shop for a mattress.
From the ridiculously overpriced European imports to the more affordable Asian mattresses. This amazing trip continues. Amazon now starts around $100 for an innerspring mattress that appears to have only springs-no padding. Vacuum packed mystery-foam innerspring mattresses with badly bent coils have begun to appear on the Internet in recent weeks. All-foam mattresses crushed into small cardboard cartons have been around for several years and when done well such as Casper and Leesa are less noxious and probably more comfortable than many of their numerous emerging competitors. However they are just poor value and not comfortable or durable enough for me to recommend for anyone. Crushing and rolling coil springs is what is new. They only recently appeared in China. You can spot them here in the USA with the usual BS about how only their “miracle mattress” is comfortable for anyone and everyone. Trial periods are growing in length as competition is growing numerically. I have stopped counting. Probably as of March 1st there are at least 150 Internet-only squashed and boxed foam “thingies” to try at home. A 150 day trial is not uncommon. I tried a Casper in a popup store when they first appeared. I quickly saw that it was not a mattress I would want, but for a reasonably large slice of youthful humanity with large student debt who might not mind the odd feeling of slowly sinking into a mattress while waiting for sleep to come, and who can mentally blot out any chemical odors as the heat sensitive chemical foams melt, sink down, and harden, a Casper is for them. Nobody really should have to sleep on such foams despite the tiniest of budgets, but paying 3-6x what they are worth makes it even more of an of an insult.
What apparently aren’t yet making it to our Western shores in these big steel shipping containers are any mattresses that I can comfortably recommend. I have heard that they are coming very soon but have no useful details yet. Possibly the new administration in Washington may decide that is important to protect mattress consumers. If my only criteria were value, comfort, and durability, this would not be quite such a big deal. However these “bargain” boxed mattresses may be putting people’s health at risk. China has no laws that control what chemicals go into their synthetic foams, and certainly no interest in any VOC gasses that escape into American bedrooms. The earliest makers of these boxed mattresses, Casper, Tuft and Needle, Leesa, and some other lesser-known crushed and boxed brands are made in the USA from CertiPur approved synthetics. CertiPUR does not mean “safe”, but it does mean “less dangerous”. A matter of degree. The less memory foam any of these newbies has, the better for your comfort and health. No relationship to the price you pay. You may or may not like one if you buy, but to the best of my knowledge, they really are American made and do conform to some kind of testing. I have some real issues with the standards for CertiPUR approval, but they pale in comparison to the potential dangers of Chinese foams.
I wasn’t always so suspicious about chemical and biological issues when thinking about mattresses. Before the late 1980’s, memory foam was a curiosity. All was imported from Sweden. The fable that NASA used it for astronauts is just that, another advertising lie that has been repeated so often that no-one questions it. After paying scientists to create it, NASA became aware of the noxious fumes that volatilize constantly from the foam and decided to protect the astronauts long term health. So they rejected “visco elastic foam”and sold the patent at auction. All of this new petrochemical foam came from one Swedish factory that owned TempurPedic outright for the first few years and apparently invented the phrase that has made billions, “memory foam”. Then DuPont, Dow, and other chemical giants smelled (no pun intended) the potential profits in making the chemicals from inexpensive fossil fuel, inexpensive chemicals that when mixed, becomes expensive memory foam. At least 30 other worldwide chemical giants including Monsanto, and Cargill, entered the fray and competition. Dropping petroleum, natural gas and coal prices have driven the cost to make memory foam down so far that it costs a mattress maker less than almost anything else they can fill a mattress with. “BioFoam” for a price premium is a real scam. When corn or soy oil is converted to the identical chemicals that make memory foam, the molecules are identical to those made from petroleum. Tempur, the first with the best merchandising and distribution has maintained their artificially high retail prices, and the rest of the marketplace is divided into many many price ranges. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you pay for memory foam, or even how much excessive profit it can bring to a mattress maker, it should matter to you that you what fumes you breathe in all night. And you really should not want to inhale noxious chemicals when you do not have to.
I take real exception to the notion that that something called “BioFoam” is not as harmful as ordinary fossil-fuel based synthetics. I think that it is worse for two reasons. BioFoams substitute up to 30% of plentiful petroleum with synthetic oils derived from green plants. These molecular building blocks ordinarily derived from petroleum/coal/natural gas are used in a minority of the chemical brew that becomes memory foam. Molecules from soy or corn are chemically and physically identical to those from fossil fuel. No better and no worse for you. However, this practice, along with BioFuel drives up the cost of your food by removing billions of dollars of food away from the world’s food supplies. The chemical memory foams are not as important as the biofuels in driving up hunger around the world, but if you are hungry somewhere in the Third World and can’t afford a meal because a marketer in the USA is trying to fool people into thinking that a chemical foam is good, does not put food on your plate. In our connected world, nothing anymore seems to be unimportant.
When I study your survey and go on a “virtual shopping” expedition with your information, you can rest assured that I have done my due diligence. If a mattress maker is not transparent about their components, their products never make it to my approved list. A big or familiar brand is no guarantee of anything. Lately, with China’s reputation for counterfeiting almost every brand and type of manufactured item, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some of the big brand mattresses that I see on the Internet are any more than generic Chinese mattresses with counterfeited labels. The last time I visited China, I saw a vintage “Beautyrest” mattress labels beautifully printed onto a $2 handbag! It is so easy for me to imagine mattresses lined up in a Chinese factory ready to ship with counterfeit Posturepedic, Beautyrest, or Tempur-Pedic labels to dealers waiting to advertise them on eBay or sell them at retail somewhere. I have already seen some very suspicious prices for familiar names for sale on eBay but haven’t yet figured out how to check them out. Or even if I still have the strength to play detective. Familiar brand names are no guarantee at all because they can be so easily counterfeited. I am positive that this is not a problem when you buy at a well reputed retailer, but eBay or Craigslist mattress purchasing should be approached with caution.
Some of the largest American mattress manufacturers did something that has proven to be really stupid back in the nineties that negatively affects every mattress shopper buying/paying-for their brand. Around ’91-2 business suddenly slowed in the USA and cash became extremely tight. At the same time, China was starting to develop a real middle class that could afford halfway decent mattresses if they didn’t have to be imported. Making the simplest foam-slab mattress can be done with a knife and a sewing machine, but superior innerspring mattresses require expensive spring-making machinery and sophisticated purpose-designed quilting and sewing machinery for assembly. If cheap labor is available, really cheap, then only coil winding machines become the one real costly necessity. When the recession hit here at home, it didn’t take many months before Chinese buyers with cash in hand started showing up at big and small mattress factories. Quite a few struggling factory owners bit and tens of millions of dollars changed hands. Leggett and Platt, a beautifully managed company, does not make mattresses, but did and still does make 90% of all the component bits and pieces including a wide selection of coils. An American mattress maker tempted by the Asian cash, could have cash to pay off debts. And…. L&P, probably working flat out, kept the mattress factories with components for making whatever they could sell in a slow market. Twenty five or more years later, a lot of the famous names still buy their coils and many other components right off the shelf from L&P. And L&P has built a large presence in China and elsewhere in newly booming Asian countries. World trade at it’s best, but it has stifled a lot of innovation at home.
For one thing, because a factory without spring making machinery is highly tempted to just stuff bags with synthetic foam, slap on a label, and ship it off to your neighborhood Macys, Costco, or Sams. That is what happens. The whole way of doing business has been forever changed. Consumers are now replacing big name mattresses in six or seven years and they are worn out years sooner. Most of the names you are familiar with no longer make mattresses as good as they might and once did. No more shopping in stores with street doors for a large segment of the population, and sleeping on a cool and supportive mattress is a luxury. Few people now enjoy mattresses that were as good as their parents used to buy and think that it is normal. It doesn’t have to be for the people who ask me to help them shop by filling out a survey.
The average mattress price has increased more slowly than inflation this century, but because most memory foam is so short lived, a typical mattress needs replacing in less than five years and actually gets replaced in fewer than eight years. Same for innerspring with memory foam padding or just a bag of foam. Mattress assemblers without coil winding machinery of their own now have to buy coils from importers and domestic coil makers at much higher cost than they were accustomed to. One solution, a very bad one for consumers, and a very profitable one for the manufacturers, has simply been to switch to making solid synthetic foam mattresses with no supporting spring core. The best mattresses (not only my opinion) are made with innerspring support cores. The best of these innerspring units are those that are generally described as “independent pocketed coil”. While such coils can be found in all price ranges, taller and better coils with more wire in each coil make better mattresses. All of the major brands now have one or more lines that have only synthetic fossil fuel based mystery foams, with a soft foam top layer on top of a firmer”support” foam core. These mattresses can feel pretty good during a five-minute test in a store, but fail miserably in the short and medium term at home. Few survive for the long term. One common denominator that links the majority of all mass-produced mattresses is the ubiquitous upholstery material visco-elastic “memory foam”. I can give you many reasons not to buy any mattress made with warm and gassy memory foam, but I promised you a minimum of negatives, and I want to save something for an article just about memory foam.
When you walk into a showroom with an ocean of identical appearing white or beige cloth rectangles, often so thick and high that you need a stepstool to test them, you are usually at the tender mercies of a commission salesperson. Your salesperson may be a nice person, and probably is. However, the “Golden Rule” stops at the door. It morphs into something like “ Sell or Starve”, because no sale=no pay. The commission dollars are often much higher on higher profit items, or on completely-unknown higher profit off-brands. None of this promotes a consumer-friendly environment. Your best way to avoid being taken advantage of is to gain a little knowledge before you set out to shop.
A guaranteed way for you get more and pay less is by saving the typical 100% retail markups when you buy at factory direct prices. If you get better quality and better prices you can ask yourself, what is the catch? Why doesn’t everyone seek out direct sellers. That depends. The catch is really different with different individual shoppers more than with different mattress sellers. Older people who are not very computer literate, and often resistant to change, tend to prefer the convenience of shopping in a local bricks and mortar store. Their children and grandchildren often with no memory of what life was like before the Internet find buying a mattress on the Internet a useful convenience. When you buy locally you almost always have to shop in what I call the “mattress maze”. No matter how many stores you visit you will find that making a decision only gets more difficult. Even if you write down all the “cutesy” mattress names, and not forget to write down the pre-haggling price, after only two stores it usually becomes a blur when you try to recall even one mattress that you liked. Making it even more difficult for you are the salespeople, now called retail sales associates (RSA’s), who will tell you anything that they think they have to tell you to get you to buy. Truth in mattress stores is at least as unchallenged as truth in politics.
Mattresses are a “blind item”. They all more-or-less look alike. A major visual-only difference is the so-called pillow top mattresses. A pillow top on a mattress exists only to make the mattress appear to be more costly than it really is. Pillow top mattresses can be hard, soft, medium, or virtually anything in between. A pillow top on a mattress really is only an extra five minutes of strictly decorative sewing when the external cover is being assembled. The sewer, using dark thread for contrast, skillfully creates the appearance of a separate pillow. The actual surface feel of the mattress is completely dependent upon what padding is inside directly under the covering. Ironically, this “trick” rarely fails to work.
Mattress shopping on the Internet is now becoming dominated by what I unflatteringly call snake-oil peddlers. A direct reference to the 19th century traveling medicine shows that served as small town entertainment, and a source of alcohol filled medicine bottles for shoppers who “never” drank alcohol. Many of these patent medicines also contained cocaine making them even more attractive for only a dollar or two. Ever wonder how Coca Cola got it’s name? In 2017 the snake oil mattress peddlers are delivering large attractive cloth bags of crushed and boxed memory foam, mystery foam, 100% synthetic latex, and some things that don’t belong in mattresses at all. They are actually selling “fear”. Or maybe freedom from fear. The gimmick first popularized by “Casper” is a very long free trial with minimal risk. If you don’t like it you can return it for a full refund within 100 or more days. They do not tell you how you are going to get it back to the factory. Even if you save the shipping carton, there is no way to get the genie back into the bottle. Your free trial mattress is now about 4× too large to fit. And FedEx and UPS will not accept anything so large even if you could get a new carton. To be fair, if you live in NYC, Casper’s HQ, they have a very busy service picking up the returns. But in every town and village in the country? I don’t think so. The newer newbies simply promise anything, but often have no method in place to honor promises.
Five or six websites such as US mattress or 1-800 mattress claim to be able to sell you the same mattress that you saw in your local bricks and mortar store, only at a lower price. They are not telling you the truth. The major mattress makers prevent this price cutting from happening to protect their large customers. If you buy from one of these websites, they will ship you anything that remotely resembles what you think that you want from the same maker. And if you think getting a return to one of the boxed mattress sellers is difficult, at least this new breed with the crushed foam will give you your money back without a struggle if you find a way to get them their mattress back clean and packed well enough to arrive undamaged. Some of these firms permit you to donate your mattress to a recognized local charity in the name of the mattress company to use as a tax deduction. Most do not re-sell used mattresses.
The best way I know of for you to get more is to find what is best for you from a manufacturer that sells directly to the consumer at factory direct prices. Some factory direct resources have informative web sites and deliver almost anywhere including Canada, Mexico, and overseas. Your savings are real and large when you can avoid paying retail, a final haggled price that is almost always 2X or more than the factory price. I maintain information on a few long-established and capable direct sellers ready to make a mattress for you. I make judgments about their products based on the quality and quantity of materials used, and reader recommendations. The numbers of factory direct resources are constantly and frequently diminishing as competition from problematic and questionable Internet startups has eaten into their customer base. This is not good for consumers, but the marketplace goes by the law of the jungle.
If you are searching for honest, informed, and unbiased guidance on the Internet, there is close to none. At risk of sounding judgmental, my criteria for rating a review site as being biased or not are whether or not they take money from mattress sellers for praising their product, placing mattress ads and on the review site, or actually connecting customers directly for a commission. I constantly trawl the web looking for review sites that I can recommend. Although there are at least a hundred sites of various sizes that offer to guide you, only two others meet my criteria for not being two faced. Consumer Reports is the grandfather of all review sites and mattress reviews are just a tiny bit of their wide umbrella. They charge about $6 for a trial membership, and I highly recommend that you make the investment. I have disagreements with some of their testing techniques, as their seventy-year-old test machines are not up to the needs of rating newer air mattresses, and memory and other synthetic foams. The testing machines are designed for testing steel coils and tend to overrate the durability of foam and air. However, as “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, it is very true in the mattress-testing field. Their member-actual user reviews are, or were until very recently, among the few consumer reviews with absolute credibility. Apparently one of the newby mattress startups has figured out how to game the system and insert dubious reviews. CR is a well-managed public benefit operation. I would expect that they would find a way to keep out the phony mattress reviews.
The other site that has earned my trust is the oddly named, “Sleep Like the Dead”. The trust, however, is for their honesty, not necessarily their accuracy. The site is a curated compendium of reviews harvested by the owners from forums and review sites, many of which are included in the group that are tainted by a lack of independence or actually involved in pay for play. Still SLTD is much better than no information at all. If you use them to answer the larger questions, such as a comparison of foams, or good pillow information, you get quality information. If you try to pick out one single mattress for yourself, absent professional qualified guidance, it is unlikely that you will get the best possible outcome. They get their income, and it is a large one, from selling advertising to mattress makers and sellers right on their website. This can and does confuse their readers because SLTD because the advertising can make it look like the website has approved the product. Approach with caution.
The only “truth” is that almost every website that publicly judges mattresses on the web has some kind of financial agenda that pre-determines the outcome. Claims of comfort or durability are always subjective and since they are not provable can not be called true. A reason for you to be wary is the reliance on hyperbole instead of facts that is present in most of the numerous new internet-only websites such as Casper, Saatva, Tuft and Needle, Leesa, and Yogabed (and about 130+ more). An expert (me) examining quality and content claims often discloses no or little connection with the truth. These sites pander to the most cautious of shoppers with extravagant “free” trials and other apparently consumer friendly policies, and sometimes, when pressed, do carry through. My issue is less with the service than the problematic mattress-like things that they foist on the unwary. If something is too good to be true, it almost never is.
Claims of value can only be slightly more objective, and then, only if they could compare two identical mattresses offered at different prices. Consumer Reports, the only consumer oriented and supported magazine, has made legitimate efforts from time to time. The quality of their advice varies, but you often can get very good guidance. Where CR, in my opinion, is completely wrong is in their advice to always haggle. This is rarely possible or necessary when buying from Internet or factory direct merchants. You can’t do it at a store like Walmart, or Macy’s or any well reputed furniture chain. You can and should with big and small chain and local sleep shops like Mattress Firm. The haggling is part of sleep shop culture. I have tried to comprehend why CR tells you to do something impossible and I have come to a conclusion that it is geography. They are physically located on NYC’s northern border of and tend to deal with some of the most skillful hagglers in the country when buying a national brand.
Where you buy your mattress is as or more important than what you buy. It is so difficult to know what you are getting into. Spending half an hour lying down in a store with a salesperson at your feet, does not guarantee that when the mattress gets to your bedroom, it will be identical to the sample, and/or still feel comfortable to you. Generally speaking, when buying mass produced mattresses at retail prices you are far better off in a department or family owned furniture store than a sleep shop. When or if you need a replacement for a sagging memory foam mattress, you don’t want to be ripped off and abused on the cost of the exchange, you want a comfortable mattress at an affordable price. Family owned and operated factory-direct stores tend to be the best for value and service. Walmart, Sam’s, Costco, and other big box stores often have bargains, but rarely have anything but memory foam, and sometimes with questionable or incompetent after delivery service. Internet mattress sellers are all over the place ranging from ultimate integrity for one 162 year old NYC factory direct with mattresses that Consumer Reports highly recommends, to 134+ (or more) overnight-wonder startups on the Internet that bring in a container of Chinese mystery foam mattresses, sell them, disappear, and return in a month or two with a new name when their container arrives on the dock in Los Angeles.