Buying a mattress fits somewhere in between buying a car and buying a home on the dreaded “babe in the woods” scale. As a big-ticket, infrequent purchase, consumers who go looking for a better night’s sleep find themselves navigating a hazy world full of intentional brand confusion and seemingly meaningless price tags. Buying a mattress can feel like buying a car, as sales staff are often pushy. And it can feel like buying a home because you have to live with the choice for a decade or more — heck, many folks buy mattresses less often than homes, as anyone who has ever moved a bed can tell you.
The rarity of the purchase means consumers are a “babe in the woods,” knowing little about what they should buy or how they should buy it. In other words, they are easy marks for less-than-scrupulous sales staff. We’re going to try to change that equation today.
1. Brand Confusion
There are a few overriding principles that mattress shoppers should understand. First, while comparison-shopping is a great idea, stores and manufacturers make this intentionally difficult by slapping different brand names on what is essentially the same mattress. That makes it harder, but not impossible, to engage in showrooming: trying out a model in a store, then buying it online for a lower price.
2. Meaningless Price Tags
Speaking of price, get ready to negotiate. Price tags on bedding mean even less than price tags on cars. Ignore the percent of MSRP claims, or the “sales.” All that matters is the price. Most stores will match whatever price you can find somewhere else (assuming you can match models), so try to work that way. If you can’t agree on a direct-model comparison in a store, you are probably shopping in the wrong store.
3. No Real Test Drive
Remember, it’s also nearly impossible to try out a mattress in a store by lying on it for five minutes in street clothes while people stare at you. The mattress isn’t “broken in.” You aren’t asleep and turning. You aren’t even sleepy — your heart is probably racing. So it’s a good idea to try out different models at a friend’s house if possible. One reader suggested an excellent idea: If you have a great night’s sleep at a hotel, find out what brand of mattress it was, and try to buy that.
4. Problems After the Purchase
That leads to the fourth principle: it’s all about the returns. Mattress sales folks I’ve chatted with say that, in the end, prices and delivery costs have a way of flattening out, as long as you do due diligence and bargain reasonably well. The real gotchas of mattress shopping happen after the sale.
Because you won’t know if the purchase is right for at least two weeks, the retailer’s return policy is absolutely critical. Equally important is the manufacturer’s warranty policy. Not all 10-year warranties are the same, as Constance Brinkley-Badgett found out.
“Our mattress failed after about two months. Giant sink holes where we sleep. The retailer replaced it with a different model, but it was a major hassle and took numerous calls to the manufacturer and the store owner,” she said.
“Jack” is a former mattress salesman who maintains an excellent website called The Mattress Nerd — he asked that we not publish his last name. He offered several warnings about mattress purchases gone bad.
First, “returns” to the retailer often aren’t possible.
“Most places don’t let you return a mattress. You can only exchange, and then you can only exchange for something the same price or higher. Also, everybody has a different policy on how long you have to exchange, and sometimes the fees can be pretty high,” he said.
Second, invoking the warranty can come with a series of problems.
“If the mattress starts sagging, it might not be covered under the warranty,” he said. “Most innerspring mattresses have a ‘tolerance’ of 1.5 inches, which means if there’s a dip in your mattress 1.4 inches deep, the company will say that’s a normal impression and there’s nothing to be done. Foam mattresses usually have a tolerance of under an inch. Also, if there’s a stain on the mattress — even a little one — or if the frame you have doesn’t have enough legs, they’ll deny your warranty claim even if it has nothing to do with the sag.
“Speaking of warranty, be careful of ‘prorated’ warranties. Some manufacturers will have a warranty of ’10 years prorated,’ sometimes written as 1/10. Meaning, it’s one year of a full warranty, but in years two through 10, you only get a portion of your money back towards a new mattress if it sags,” he said. “Some unscrupulous salesmen will say it ‘has a 10-year warranty’ but then will neglect to mention that it’s prorated.”
Add-ons can often be costly, too. Many stores will try to sell buyers a mattress cover. Buying one isn’t a bad idea, Jack said, as it will help protect the purchase and might make warranty claims easier. But buy a cover elsewhere — a cover that sells for $100 at a mattress retailer can cost only $50 elsewhere.
Finally, there is some good news in the mysterious world of mattress stores — internet disruption strikes again. In the past 24 months, there’s been a small explosion of online dealers offering clear pricing and easy shipping, thanks to innovations that allow shipping of tightly compressed foam mattresses. Brands including Casper, Leesa and Tuft & Needle are catering to millennials who like buying everything online, but anyone shopping for a new bed should consider them. Buyers lose the ability to test out a bed in a store, but these brands come with liberal return policies to compensate. They aren’t cheap, but each has several mid-priced models. And, as standard shipping, delivery can be free and easy.
Keep in mind that mattress sellers often offer financing to interested shoppers — here’s a good read on why you should check your credit before buying a mattress. (You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see where you stand.)
Read next: How to Buy a Mattress in 10 Minutes or Less