Commentary

Mattress Wars Get Hot And Heavy

I read with great interest that the mattress folks have gone to the mattresses. Sealy and Simmons are at war over the fact that the former is introducing a new line of with its coils encased in fabric. "Pocketed coils," or "Marshall units," as they are known among bedding wonks, have been the latter's shtick since forever, which is to say 1924, giving it the famous bowling-ball-on-the-bed positioning.

It may not be as bloody as a battle between warring Mafia families, or as ruthless as campus politics, but the snarky insults were flying back and forth in the New York Times yesterday.

#1 Sealy doesn't think giving its consumers another option is such a big deal, Stephanie Clifford reports. "To say it's not a major shift -- of course it is," Simmons CEO Gary Fazio fires back. "Do you not have faith in the brand promise you're making?"

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"This, to me, feels like the competition is just aggressively going after this," Sealy CMO Jodi Allen tells Clifford. "Consumers could, really, to be honest, care less."

We've been shopping for a new mattress for, oh, about a decade. Maybe more. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with the full-sized Sears-o-Pedic Dream Velvet polyurethane model we purchased more than 25 years ago -- except that it has gotten smaller by dint of the two cats and one pit bull insisting on their territorial rights where human legs have every right to go.

There have been intense active periods and long passive stretches where we just gave up looking. Nothing has been more difficult in our lives to sort out. Not a house. Not colleges. Not financial services, automobiles, computers, cell phones, surgeons or bottled water. A little newspaper in the countryside where the deadlines are later than 7:30 a.m., perhaps, but that's another story.

It all started when I became enamored of Tempur-Pedic ads circa 1990. I got on their mailing list. They must have spent more than the cost of an original twin-sized bed, with a few memory-foam pillows thrown in, trying to get me to buy. The marketing material sounded so ... right. I can't give you specifics but I remember walking around for years thinking that I was spending about a third of my life (eight hours a night) on a mattress and I deserved, by golly, to have those eight hours be as restful and restorative as possible, no matter what the cost.

(Make that should be spending, according to sleep researchers; unfortunately maintaining the lifestyle that such aspirational thinking supports means that I've actually been spending, like most Americans, about 25% (six hours) of my lifetime sleeping and a good portion of the rest of it earning enough to pay off previous my aspirations.)

Anyway, I never pulled the trigger on Tempur-Pedic's many glossy, 90-day free-trial offers. In the end, whatever I bought would have cost at least five times more than the Sears-o-Pedic Dream Velvet and the trusty captain's bed we'd gotten at an unpainted furniture store to support it. Plus, I didn't think I'd have the guts to return it if I didn't like it. And when I finally lay down on a memory-foam Tempur-Pedic in a Sleepy's, I felt I was mired in pond muck. But that's just me. From polls I've seen, the vast majority of memory-foam purchasers feel good about their mattress.

Let's go back to the cost factor for a moment because, truth be told, that's what's really been separating us from a purchase. I Googled "Why do mattresses cost so much?" and came up with some interesting insights. Superior technology costs more. There's more steel in the inner-spring mattress than there used to be and steel is expensive. Government regulations drove up the price (what, you think it doesn't cost money to produce models that don't go up in flames every time you drop a lighted cigarette on it?).

Then there's the fellow in Arizona who sells "eco-friendly" latex mattresses, purportedly at a price far better than the competition. He says the new latex models are "just bad for business due to their durability." Bottom line: the major manufacturers ratchet up the price because they're not getting the repeat business they used to get. His marketing philosophy is "maybe not, but if you like my deal, you'll tell your cousin Vinnie."

Good ol' Consumer Reports says that the margins are usually higher for mattresses than any other product in a furniture store, with gross profit margins of basic models as high as 30% to 40% each for wholesalers and retailers. And those deluxe versions carry margins as high as 50%. You can read more here about "Eight Mattress Mysteries" (including the difference between a "warranty" and a "comfort guarantee" if you have a subscription).

But what Consumer Reports editors won't do is make a recommendation. Despite extensive testing on memory foam, air, latex and inner spring models, they beg off with the "it-all-comes-down-to-individual-preference" demurral.

I did find one fellow who has compiled a bunch of those individual preferences into a database that names names. When he made this very helpful YouTube video, he'd sorted through 8,300 responses. (I'm not sure, as a marketing wag, that I'd have advised him to use SleepLikeTheDead.com as a brand name, but that's what separates the commentators from the doers.)

Nick Robinson now has collected nearly 14,000 "consumer experiences" about a whole bunch of foam-memory, air, latex, coil-spring and water-bed brands, as well as ancillary products like mattress toppers, electric blankets and dog beds (yeah, right, who uses those?). The models are rated in a number of categories including price, durability, motion isolation (do you get seasick every time hubby rolls over?), allergies and "less pain."

On the grand scale, memory foam, air and latex all score around 80% in user satisfaction. Inner-spring mattresses -- the mainstays of Sealy's and Simmons -- come in at 61%. There was only one category in which users rated inner-spring mattresses better than air, latex or memory foam. Sex.

I'm not going to go anywhere with that. I'm just surprised that the mattress companies haven't. In fact, and surprisingly, no mattress advertising I've seen would get anywhere near a "C" rating from the Legion of Decency. Except, perhaps, anything for Bob's Discount Furniture's Bob-O-Pedic. There's nothing salacious about it. You just have to condemn it out of, well, aesthetic decency.

3 comments about "Mattress Wars Get Hot And Heavy".
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  1. Digital Marketer from .., January 27, 2011 at 9:32 a.m.

    thom - you were smart to resist tempur pedic's marketing. their pricing and margins are truly shameful, much higher than you cite, not to mention illegally forcing all retailers to sell at minimum prices (commonly known as "price fixing"). yes, they have the highest customer satisfaction scores - AND ALSO THE LOWEST CUSTOMERS SATISFACTION SCORES! people either love or hate it.

    buyer's tip: beware of the bob-o-pedic. it's made in china, and buyers have a litany of complaints from funky odors and oily textures, to daily pain, while bob's refuses to honor their own service policies. industry insiders say chinese factories have been caught adding wax, lead, and sand dust to their memory foam to give the false appearance of higher weights and densities to command a higher price.

    in the past ~2 years a whole new generation of inexpensive memory foam products made in the USA have emerged that offer much higher quality, better performance, more eco-friendly, at a fraction of the price.

    the only surprise about sealy offering pocket coils is they didn't do it decades ago. it's one of the only meaningful construction differences that's easy to explain on the sales floor. and simmons has every reason to be upset because they're left with no differentiation.

    serta, spring air, and others have offered pocket coils for years.

    all the majors get their spring units from the same supplier anyway (leggett and platt), so they're all so much the same, and they have to concoct the flimsiest "features" to compete. lately, they've given up on competing on product features/benefits, and turned to stylish celebrity endorsements like vera wang and donald trump - as if the aesthetics of mattresses mean a damn thing since they are always covered with sheets and linens.

    sadly, the whole mattress industry thrives on half-truths, obfuscation, and subterfuge. every store gets a different name for the same model, and they all claim to have the lowest prices (which, of course, are also the *HIGHEST* prices since nobody else carries the product under the same name at any price!).

    it's all made worse by rapacious retailers like sleepy's, who have been busted by the attorneys general in NY and NJ for consumer fraud, false and deceptive advertising, knowingly delivering defective merchandise, refusing to honor their own service policies, and much worse.

    for a truly innovative and honest mattress shopping experience, try this site:
    http://www.create-a-mattress.com

  2. Thom Forbes from T.H. Forbes Co., January 27, 2011 at 4:10 p.m.

    Thanks for all this good info — and confirming a bunch of gut feelings I had.

  3. Mark Quinn from Leggett and Platt, February 9, 2011 at 11:51 a.m.

    I work for Leggett and Platt and it is true that we make a lot of the innersprings out there but certainly not all of them by a long shot. For someone to comment that the difference between units is "flimsy" says that they don't know a lot about the engineering that goes in to creating the design.

    As for the comparisons that Sleep Like the Dead makes where he arrives at a 61% approval rating for innerspring mattresses, can we please compare apples to apples. Innersprings range in price from $59 in a twin up to $25,000 in a queen. When you talk about Tempur-Pedic or Select Comfort they are at the higher end of the traditional market. If, for instance, you compare a $499 innerspring mattress to a $2,000 Tempur-Pedic, one would think the higher price bed would receive a favorable rating. (This is what happens when you place ALL innerspring products into one bucket.) When all things are equal in price and quality, I put a good innerspring bed up against anything on the market for comfort and quality of sleep. Anyone up for a blind comfort test?

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