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How to Buy a New Mattress Without a Ph.D. in Chemistry


Dobrin Mitev believes that price does reflect quality. “At least at Casper, the more expensive models had a more complex structure,” he said. “More layers, and each layer had a different function.” Comparing mattresses to wine, he recommended selecting from the middle price range. “You don’t want to buy the cheapest,” he said, but in the mid-range “there is not that much difference.”

If the middle range is still a financial stretch, you could try the Zinus Green Tea Cooling Swirl Memory Foam Hybrid ($379 from Amazon), Denver Mattress Doctor’s Choice Plush ($799.99), NovaForm Comfort Grande ($599.99 from Costco), Allswell Bed in a Box Hybrid ($349 from Walmart), or Hesstun Medium Firm Innerspring ($549 from IKEA).

How bad could a cheapie be? Time to visit Mattress Firm, a repository of mattresses in a wide range of brands and prices—at the high end, Intellibed ($5,799) and Tempur-Pedic ($5,099); at the low end, Sleepy’s innerspring ($199) and Tulo’s memory foam ($259). At my local branch, I found fifteen or so beds shoved close together under ceiling lights, creating a warehouse vibe. I was immediately greeted by Moncef, a cheerful man whose nametag identified him as a Sleep Expert. When I confessed that I wasn’t sure which type of mattress I wanted, he said, “Perfect! You’re a mystery shopper.” He added that he had a scientific method for determining my ideal mattress. It involved asking me a lot of questions and looking at a chart. From Moncef, I learned that although a plush mattress helps you fall asleep faster, a supportive mattress helps you stay asleep longer.

After flopping around on many expensive mattresses, I asked to see some, ahem, budget choices. Those were displayed in the basement. I spread out on a Beautyrest that felt like a slice of Wonder Bread. After twenty minutes, I told Moncef that I needed more time to make a decision. “Did I mention we’re having a sale?” he said.

Did I mention that it’s almost impossible to buy a mattress that is not on sale? March through May is the best time to buy, according to Bob Vila’s Web site, because new product usually arrives in June. But everything is negotiable. Chris Regan, who manages the mattress-testing program at Consumer Reports, estimated that mattresses have a markup of forty to fifty per cent. Haggling usually works, unless you are dealing with a company with fixed prices, such as a warehouse club.

Regan recommends shopping in an area where there are lots of mattress stores. “When you head out of a place and say, ‘I kind of like this one, but I’m going down the street,’ the salesperson will likely offer you a better deal,” he said. If a price reduction is a no-go, try for free sheets or pillows. There are online tricks, too: leave your item in the shopping cart—there’s a good chance you’ll receive an e-mail with a discount code within a day or two.

At Hästens, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. The company’s most preposterously priced mattress, a king-size Grande Vivius, costs $539,000 (bed frame included). When Drake bought one, in 2020, it was merely $400,000. For non-Grammy winners, there’s a waiting list. Handcrafted by a team of artisans in Sweden, each mattress takes up to six hundred hours to assemble and stitch and is wrapped in checked cotton ticking. If you buy one, even the company’s humblest ($19,575), a pair of “sleep doctors” will come to your house twice a year for twenty-five years to flip, rotate, and massage your mattress.

No, these mattresses are not stuffed with caviar or antimatter or five hundred and thirty-nine thousand dollars in unmarked bills. In addition to steel (for the springs), wool, cotton, and flax, they are made from more than a dozen layers of hand-teased South American horsetail hair. Horsehair fibres are hollow, a Hästens executive explained, which means that they enhance the mattress’s ventilation system. (Horses sleep standing up; make of that what you will.) Although the mattresses have a warranty of twenty-five years, the executive clarified, “We won’t replace it if your dog rips it apart.”

Not long ago, joined by the person with whom I share an old but good-enough-for-now mattress, I tried out a few Hästens models during a private sleep consultation. This was arranged by a Hästens employee, Kristel Kalm (real name), a lanky former tennis pro from Sweden. She’d offered to send a car for us, but we made the three-block journey on foot. In borrowed goose-down Hästens booties ($200), we chilled on a king-size 2000T mattress ($61,780). The lights were dim and candles burned, mimicking the ambience of a séance or a facial. I wish I could tell you that Hästens mattresses are uncomfortable, because then you wouldn’t even think of spending the equivalent of a year’s college tuition on a bed. But they are extremely comfortable, somehow simultaneously dense and pliant. Oh, well, sleep is as good as college for your brain.

The first of my online purchases to arrive was a Layla Hybrid, a flippable number composed of more layers than a lasagna—the one in the middle has individually wrapped coils for support, and on either side of this are foam layers for comfort, with one side firmer than the other. Many mattresses nowadays are not flippable. You like firm or you like plush; why would someone want two options? I’d asked this question of Alex, my sleep guide at Saatva. “Our numbers suggest there’s an age group that enjoys firm, but, when they reach their sixties or seventies, they get arthritis and need something softer,” he whispered discreetly. I wanted to try Layla because the outer layers are infused with copper, which supposedly makes it cooler. If you shop for mattresses, you will reach the conclusion that the greatest problem facing Americans today is not climate change or gun violence but “sleeping hot.”

I dragged the duffelbag inside my apartment and watched a few online videos about how to set up a Layla mattress. In one, a spokesman says to use the duffelbag’s shoulder straps to carry it up the stairs. If you’re a mule. I could barely slide the bag across my floor. Every video shows the unpacker expressing delight at the complimentary extra-large T-shirt that says “Wake Up!” After maneuvering the Hybrid out of the bag, I nervously used the enclosed Layla cutting blade to remove the outer plastic casing. Trying to puzzle out which direction the unbound mattress would spiral so that it wouldn’t smash into the table, I understood how chimps taking I.Q. tests feel. Before I could get at the inner shrink-wrap casing, my Layla started to expand, and within a minute or two it was fully grown. I peeled off the last of the plastic to reveal a honeycomb-patterned charcoal-gray mattress cover, made from polyester, viscose, rayon, and Lycra spandex. Don’t even think of trying to get it back in the duffel. ($1,699, reduced to $1,499.)

For a few nights, I slept on the Hybrid. The soft side was too soft for me, and the other side was spongy but didn’t make me feel like I needed a forklift to get out of bed. You can also go for the extra topper with copper-infused memory foam ($349), which provides cushioning, or, as the Layla Web site says, it’s “like adding an extra layer of clouds to a bed already made of cotton candy.” I consulted with Michael Hickner again to ask about the claims made by Layla and other companies that copper’s thermal conductivity allows it to pull heat away from your body.

“I’d like to see independent scientific data to support that,” he said. “Once companies figured out they can make money selling mattress snake oil to the public, they turned what used to be a boring thing you bought once every twenty years into a designer wellness solution that could change your life.” Still, if you want a soft, comfortable mattress, Layla does the trick. If you want a surface that is truly cooling, try sleeping on a glacier.

Next to arrive was the Avocado Green, rated No. 1 by Consumer Reports. It is so organic, carbon-negative, and eco-chummy that when global warming finally gets us you can rest assured that it was not because of anything you slept on. Its vegan option, which replaces wool with cotton, is PETA-approved. Gwyneth Paltrow partnered with Avocado on the Goop x Avocado mattress—no, let’s call it a sleep system—which starts at $24,000 and is available on demand. I chose my model during a visit to Avocado’s Experience Center, at 135 Fifth Avenue. While I waited for the couple chilling out on the Eco Organic model to move on, I asked a sales associate named Desi (long hair, leggings) if customers ever fall asleep. “All the time,” she said. “The longest was four and a half hours. He was so embarrassed that he bought the mattress.” I ordered the Avocado Green in king and opted for in-home delivery, recommended for beds that are royalty. For $249—cheaper than back surgery—you get setup and free removal of your old mattress. Mine was ready to go in less time than it takes for a sleeping pill to kick in. The Avocado Green has a luxe-feeling surface, both firmer and bouncier than the Layla. And I cannot agree with the online reviewer who observed that the Avocado Green had a faint odor of sheep.

In truth, the more mattresses I slept on, the more I couldn’t tell them apart. The Avocado innerspring and latex, topped with wool sheared from Himalayan Gaddi goats that, according to the brand’s Web site, “graze on organic pastures [where] a frigid mountain stream runs downhill and peaks over 20,000 feet loom high above,” was also great ($2,299). So was the DUX 6006, which has as many as forty-two hundred interconnected coils and a removable top pad for extra cushioning, if that’s your thing ($10,430). Ditto the Sleep Number 360 p6 Smart Bed, which contains two air-filled bladders, so that the inflation and deflation of each side can be adjusted on their own, to accommodate the preferences of you and your bedmate ($3,099). And, for anyone who needs biometrics regarding each second of her slumber, the SleepIQ Technology found in every Sleep Number mattress is designed for you. (I’m more “Don’t ask, don’t tell” about my nocturnal heart and breathing rates.) The Casper Nova Hybrid ($2,295) is awfully cozy, and I also like the Casper Original, both the all-foam ($1,295) and the hybrid foam with springs ($1,695).

Staring at the ceiling in Bloomingdale’s, listening to the Four Seasons sing “Oh, what a night” over the sound system, I wanted to answer “Both” to the salesperson’s question: Which is more comfortable? Some of this confusion is deliberate. Jerry Epperson, an investment banker who specializes in the furniture and mattress fields, told me, “We’re an industry where five companies do sixty to seventy per cent of the manufacturing.” He named them: Tempur-Pedic, Sealy, Serta, Simmons, and Sleep Number. A manufacturer often sells the same product to various retailers, each of which may differentiate it in a trivial way—changing the color or the quilting pattern, making it a smidgen thicker or thinner. The retailer then slaps on a proprietary name, deeming the mattress an exclusive. Mattress people call this practice “the name game.” This makes it difficult to ask Mattress Firm to honor its guarantee to “beat any competitor’s price by 10% or your purchase is free.”

Ever notice how similar many of the logos and ad slogans of mattress companies are? Compare, for instance, the clean sans-serif lowercase fonts of Nectar, Layla, Purple, and Saatva. Is this intentional? “Absolutely,” Dobrin Mitev said. “It’s competitor mimicry.”

Amid all the shadiness and hyped marketing, how to choose? Before you resort to the “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” method, let me offer a few tips: Whether you buy online or in person, sample enough mattresses to figure out whether you prefer memory foam, latex, innerspring, adjustable air-filled, or some combination. Don’t buy any mattress that doesn’t come with a trial period. Keep the mattress pristine during this time. (Many people spring for a waterproof mattress protector.) Read the fine print on the return policy to avoid surprises. Some policies allow only exchanges. That’s not for you. In my experience, Costco and Amazon make it so easy to return that you’ll hope you don’t like what you ordered. A warning about warranties: many of them are prorated; many offer repairs, not refunds or replacements; and the criteria for determining what is covered can be stringent. (Technically, sagging means a dip of at least an inch and a half. I’m not sure even an elephant house guest would cause that.) You know that mattress tag? Removing it can void the warranty.

Some advice from the mattresscenti: Seth Basham, an analyst at Wedbush Securities who covers the mattress industry, believes in reading online customer reviews. Mitev puts greater stock in the bigger, long-established companies than in the small upstarts with no track record. In contrast, many grassroots sites advise staying away from big brands like Sealy, Simmons, Stearns & Foster, and Serta (often referred to as the “S brands”), because they allegedly use poorer-quality materials. Brent Larson, a rep from the testing organization Element Materials Technology, suggests consulting Consumer Reports, which, as a nonprofit, purchases its own samples from the companies it evaluates and restricts which findings can be used in advertising.

What mattress does Chris Regan, who oversees mattress testing at Consumer Reports, sleep on? “A ten-year-old Sealy,” he said. “Is it time for me to get a new mattress? Yes. Am I going to? Probably not.” He added that the car he drives, an old Jeep, “is one of our lowest rated.” It gets him where he wants to go. ♦



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