When you buy a new mattress, a bad decision can literally keep you up nights. And the industry doesn’t make it easy to sort the good models from the so-so from the downright awful. With their flowery and pseudo-scientific language, manufacturers’ marketing messages are crafted to persuade you that the bridge between you and a great night’s sleep is only a few thousand bucks. For instance, the Serta Fitzpatrick Pillow Top ($1,100, queen size) is claimed to deliver “excellent body-hugging conformability to each sleep partner.” Ads for the Tempur-Pedic Tempur-Flex, $2,600, proclaim that it’s “a bed that transforms your sleep” with a “dynamic support layer that moves with you.”

And the two Duxianas we tested, starting at $4,800, are claimed to align your spine “through dynamic contouring support.” But in our tests, all of those were just average at best for back support.

To help you shop wisely for the right mattress, our labs evaluate every mattress in our Ratings­ not only on how it supports the spine but also on how it endures years of use, absorbs vibration, allows easy movement, and more.

Before you go shopping, arm yourself with our expert reviews and these tips:

Start in the back of the store. Stores usually keep the priciest models in front. So head to the back, and if you don’t find the right mattress, work your way toward the front of the store, and up in cost.

Be hip to bait and switch. When you ask for a particular mattress, such as one featured in one of those alluring ads, you’ll often be told it was replaced by another the store just happens to have that’s “exactly the same.” Don’t believe it; the ad was meant to get you into the store. Also, many model names you see at major retailers such as Macy’s, Sears, and Sleepy’s are exclusive to them—so you won’t be able to comparison shop.

Expect the hard sell. Sales reps can get incentives for pushing certain models. Extras such as mattress protectors may also add to commissions, so you might hear claims that using one is a condition of the warranty. It’s not.

Take your time.
Comfort is an individual decision. So make sure you lie on the mattress for 10 to 15 minutes, spending time on each side, on your back, and on your stomach if that’s how you sleep. (Consider bringing your own pillow.) In a survey of subscribers, about 80 percent of those who took the time to do that told us they were satisfied with their purchase. But you usually can’t do that in warehouse clubs or with online retailers, so make sure the return policy lets you send it back if it doesn’t satisfy.

Consider keeping your box spring. If you’re switching from an innerspring to a foam or air bed, you might need a new foundation with no springs. Otherwise, if the box spring you have isn’t sagging or damaged, it should suffice—and save you money. (Though mattresses and box springs are usually sold in pairs, you can opt to buy them singly; box springs alone usually cost $150 to $300.)

Haggle. Some businesses, such as warehouse clubs, won’t budge on price. But when shopping for the right mattress at specialty chains and other stores, be sure to negotiate. Markups are huge—that’s why retailers can lower prices by 50 percent or more during their frequent sales. So even if there’s no sale, insist on a “sale” price. No deal? Start to walk out. Chances are, you won’t get far before the sales rep gives in.

Check the terms. Most companies will let you sleep on a mattress for anywhere from two weeks to 120 days before deciding to return or exchange it, but be sure to get the policy in writing. If you do return a mattress, you might pay a 15 to 25 percent restocking fee.

Our Mattress Testing Over the Years

Vintage photo from Consumer Reports' mattress tests. Our goal is to help you find the right mattress.

We first tested mattresses in 1938. Although our equipment has changed, our goals have not: to see how much support a mattress provides and how well it will hold up over time. And to help you find the right mattress.

Side show. Today we measure spinal support by hooking up our testers to sensors that send readings to a computer.

Bounce test. We used to pound this “buttocks simulator” against each mattress 125,000 times. Today we measure dura­bility with a giant 308-pound roller.

Spring-loaded. We cut open mattresses to see whether what’s inside is what manufacturers claim. We still count springs, as we did in 1958.

Tips for Buying a Mattress

Tossing and turning all night? Maybe it’s time for a new mattress. On the 'Consumer 101' TV show, CR expert Chris Regan shares tips on what to look for when mattress shopping.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the February 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.