Economy

The Mattress Racket -- Why You End up Paying a Lot More for a Bed Than You Should

It's so hard to figure out what is good value among the piles of blindingly expensive mattresses emblazoned with smart terminology and little scientific proof for their claims.

A good night's sleep doesn't come cheap these days. Millions of consumers each year find themselves captive to a mattress industry which has continued to roll out blindingly expensive beds emblazoned with ads promising smart terminology and little scientific proof. It's a consumer conundrum made worse by the industry's arbitrary pricing, which hawks mattresses from several hundred to several thousand dollars, and deliberately confusing model lineups. It's all designed to sustain an economic arrangement, argued a Consumer Reports feature published in May, in which the difference between a $2,000 and $1,000 mattress in "less than you might think."

"Mattresses are unarguably one of the most difficult consumer products to buy, because of the name game," Consumer Reports managing editor Steven H. Saltzman told AlterNet. "Model names tend to change from chain to chain, because you can't see under the hood. It's all a mishmash of foam, fiber and fill. And prices can vary by 50 even 60 percent from one day to the next."

It's because of problems like these and more that burnt shoppers have steadily warned potential consumers about the singularly strange screw job. "Did you know that you could pay $1,300 for a mattress in store A when store B sells what is basically the same model (besides the model name and some cosmetic variations) by the same manufacturer, for less than $700?" argues one handy site called The Mattress Scam "It makes buying a car like a day at the spa."

Problematizing the process are suspicious mattress markups, sometimes ranging from from 100 to 200 percent, which allow retailers to blather about slashing prices to cut shoppers great deals. To make matters worse, rifle through Sealy and Simmons' respective websites, and you'll find that details like coil counts and more are either disappeared or couched in confusing and often hilarious language. It's bad enough that the tongue-twisting Limited-Edition Golden Collection Elegance mattress has three apparent brand names behind it -- Simmons, Stearns & Foster -- but not knowing how many coils are in its "Intellicoil" system, which features a "proprietary coil-in-a-coil design," is another problem on top of a heap of them. For good reason, according to Saltzman.

"In terms of profitability, I can tell you this," he said. "Furniture stores make more money selling mattresses than any other product, according to experts."

Like any other industry, locking in that profitability is the mattress industry's prime motivator. Requests for disclosure on markup rates, model variations and more for the purposes of this article went unheeded by Simmons and Sealy, but that's no surprise. Secrecy and obfuscation are potent weapons against the transparency that compromises industry profitability of any kind. Which is a short way of saying that you can expect the situation to further worsen outside of the furniture store. There's plenty of blame to go around, but it's all designed to keep you and the true value of the product you're buying separate and unequal.

"At one time, mattresses were unique," said Saltzman, "that is, just about the only product that was sold under different names at different stores. These days, however, we see more and more large-box retailers offering products -- everything from computers to TVs to clothes -- with unique name and model numbers. These mega-merchants have so much buying clout that they can prompt manufacturers to tweak products in little ways, or package them with distinct accessories, so they can carry unique names that thwart comparison shopping. Why do they get away with it? There are no regulations that bar such practices. They can do whatever they want."

The all-important job of consumer protection is the prime directive of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which has been more interested in nailing mattress resellers than the industry's anti-consumer practices. (Its first mattress shopping tip? "Shop around.") Fixing the mattress industry evidently pales in comparison to fixing what the FTC calls the renovated mattress industry But given all the rapacious industry scams that have severely downsized American wallets, it makes sense that making mattresses make sense is way down on the FTC's to-do list. Mattresses are major purchases, to be sure, but they are ironically so ubiquitous as to be nearly invisible.

"We at Consumer Reports have long advocated that the retailers and big brands like Sealy, Serta, Simmons and Spring Air change they way they do business," Saltzman told AlterNet. "That is, maintain the same mattress names across all channels. But retailers are the ones who demand these unique products. The manufacturers, in order to stay in business, give their customers what they want."

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
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