The myth of the $5,000 mattress

Spending thousands doesn't guarantee blissful sleep

Published: April 06, 2015 08:40 AM

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Is it time to buy a new mattress? You have more options than ever before. The big news is that department and specialty stores such as Macy’s, Sears, and Sleepy’s are no longer the default destination. Now great mattresses—at great prices—can be found at Costco and online sellers such as Casper and Tuft & Needle.

Not only are those companies lower-pressure—no pushy salespeople—but their prices are often gentler than you’d expect. And though you can’t try out mattresses at a warehouse club or website, those sellers’ return policies don’t penalize you for changing your mind. These days even electronics retailers such as Abt Electronics, P.C. Richard & Son, and HHGregg are getting in on the game in hopes of bolstering the razor-thin margins of entertainment gear with the fat markups that usually accompany mattress sales. All of that choice means you can find an excellent deal.

But no seller, whatever its selection, offers the perfect mattress. In our tests, no single mattress earned top-notch scores across the board. In our back-support test—which measures how well a mattress supports the curve of the spine—the top scorers were the Sleep Number i8 and Sleep Number c2 adjustable air beds. But they rated a notch lower for side support—a measurement of how well a mattress keeps the spine horizontal in that position.

At Consumer Reports, we test for ­attributes such as back and side support ­because a mattress that feels comfortable in the store may not be supportive enough night after night. So use our mattress Ratings to find the most supportive options, then lie on the mattresses, if possible, to find the one that is most comfortable for you.

Paying more doesn’t guarantee a better bed, either. The priciest mattress in our Ratings, the Dux 515 from the boutique retailer Duxiana, costs $7,600. Although it made our list of picks because of fine side support and durability through a simulation of eight years of use, the latex-topped innerspring was softer than claimed and offered less consistent back support. For that price, you have every right to expect stellar performance across the board.

How to save when you shop

Photo: Charles Schneider

Keep your old mattress going

Once your mattress is about 10 years old, start thinking about a replacement. In the meantime, you can flip or rotate some older innersprings to address minor dips. And if your mattress is newer and doesn’t have significant sagging, you might get away with adding a mattress topper. If you’re waking up achy, simply try a new pillow first.

Try lying before buying

Lying down on a mattress in a store can feel awkward, but more than 80 percent of subscribers we surveyed who’d done so told us they were satisfied with their purchase. Spend at least 15 minutes on a mattress. Shift positions and lie on your sides, back, and stomach, depending on how you sleep. But don’t write off online sellers or other stores just because tryouts aren’t possible; you might be passing up a bargain.  

Consider negotiating

Many businesses, such as warehouse clubs, have fixed prices that won’t budge. But for retailers that do negotiate—particularly specialty chains—huge markups let them lower prices by 50 percent or more during their frequent sales. Unless you’re switching from an innerspring to a foam or adjustable air mattress, you might also save $150 or more by keeping your old foundation (a box spring or other type of base, depending on what kind of bed you have). One strategy: Any time of year, insist on a sale price for a mattress you know you want, and don’t be afraid to walk out if you feel you’re getting a raw deal.

Ask about returns

Ask about trial periods, return policies, and restocking and pickup fees before buying. Most companies let you sleep on a mattress for 30 to 60 days before deciding to return or exchange it, but it helps to confirm that before buying. Keep in mind that many sellers will charge a 15 to 25 percent restocking fee on top of shipping, though you might at least be able to save on shipping by driving the mattress back yourself.

Beware of sleazy sales tactics

Come-on prices. Advertised specials are meant to get you into the store, not to sell you the best mattress. Because stores usually keep the most expensive models up front, start in back with the least expensive beds from a few top brands, and work your way up in cost. But you can aim too low; our tests often show that the cheapest mattresses are just that.

The old switcheroo. Ask for a particular mattress at a store and you’ll often be told it was replaced by another nearby that’s “exactly the same.” But the Serta iSeries Vantage inner­spring, which we’re told has replaced the top-ranked Serta Perfect Day iSeries Applause, scored significantly lower for back and side support. So using our mattress Ratings as a guide, stand your ground and accept no substitute—you can’t trust a sales rep’s word on the subject of identical or similar mattresses. Many model names are also exclusive to a given seller, so you won’t find what Sears or Macy’s carries at Sleepy’s.

The upsell. Salespeople can get incentives for pushing certain models. So if you feel you’re being steered toward a particular mattress or extras (such as a mattress protector), you ­probably are. Go by our mattress performance scores, and stick with what best matches how you sleep.

The overhyped warranty. Warranties usually cover only manufacturing defects, not ­normal wear. Sagging isn’t ­usually covered unless it’s at least 1½ inches deep.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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