BUYING A MATTRESS By Jim Elliott (Article)


Jim Eliott and Joan Ann

To consult the on-line version of “Consumers’ Reports,” you will learn that the difficulty in buying a mattress can be compared, unfavourably, to buying a car.

This is because, while all the dealers of a particular make of car have the same models in stock, mattress retailers have somehow convinced the three major manufacturers (Sealy, Serta, and Simmons) and some smaller specialized ones, to make special models for them alone. This makes precise comparisons impossible. The sheer number of mattress specialists in Ottawa never fails to impress foreign diplomats who arrive here from less-favoured climes. They wonder how so many mattress retailers can survive. Our retailers stock variations on a theme with small differences in quality, as expressed in spring-count, finish, covering, softness and, above all, price.

Once we start talking prices, we leave the realm of the car dealership and enter a psychological area that has more in common with the carpet section of a Turkish bazaar than more normal retail environments. The marked, or basic, price has nothing to do with reality. It is a sort of idealized, or “wish list” price for the vendor. Like the mattresses themselves, the top layers of the price are soft and fluffy. You get through them pretty quickly to get down to a solider basis. Something is always on sale, and the “on sale” merchandise tends to establish the price scale for everything else.

I tend to be a hasty shopper. When I see something I like, at a price I can afford, or nearly, my normal reaction is to buy it and move on to something else. This unfailingly costs me money and is not the way to buy a mattress! Fortunately my partner is of a more careful nature, given to research and comparison shopping. She did the “Consumers’ Reports” work at the Public Library, and talked me out of several precipitate decisions.

We visited five retailers in our search for a comfortable king-sized bed and learned a lot about the mattress business, and even a bit about our relationship. We would have visited more but two of the outlets on Colonnade in Nepean (known locally as “Mattress Alley”) were closed on the Sunday afternoon we decided to do our in depth explorations. We nonetheless satisfied ourselves that we had done a good job of researching and had missed no really outstanding bargains.

An initial call on Sears revealed a limited selection but established a more or less regular price. Sales staff was neither terribly interested nor well-informed, but did offer to let us know when items went on sale.

A quick visit to “the Brick” revealed sales staff even less well-informed, our salesman could not even tell us with any certainty which items were on sale, and a generally unwelcoming atmosphere. I also got side-tracked into the TV section, maybe a new one to replace the 1979 model I now watch…but that’s another story.

“Sleep Country” on Merivale Road was the next stop. A very personable and well-informed salesman spent a long time explaining the mattress business, from the box spring if not from the ground up. We learned about spring count, pillow tops, degrees of firmness or “comfort” (the buzz word for softness), connected vs. pocket springs, coverings, paddings, sidewall reinforcings, protection policies, deliveries, and removal of old mattresses, returns, set-up, glides versus wheels, and other arcana I have since forgotten. We also lay on more mattresses than a travelling salesman would see in a month, soft ones, hard ones, many grades in between, “comfort” ones, firm ones.

We made a decision as to the grade that suited us best, a compromise between a lightweight lady in search of comfort and a heavier gentleman who wants enough firmness to allow rolling over at night, and an easy exit in the morning. Our preferred mattress was not on sale, although a more expensive one was so heavily discounted that it was cheaper than “ours.” No problem, ours was on special in Toronto and arrangements could be made to send one up, at no additional cost, at the Toronto price. We were given a “pro-forma” bill and told to shop it around town. The store would match, nay better, any offer received for identical merchandise. Off we went.

“United Furniture Warehouse” familiar from an annoying jingle on late-night TV, revealed a very limited range of mattresses, and no sales staff interested in coming out from the safety of their counter area to talk with a customer. Unable to make contact with any sales staff, we left after noticing that the quality of most of the merchandise, not just the mattresses, was second-rate, at best.

The next two outlets, both on “Mattress Alley” aka the Colonnade in Nepean, were closed ; but a third, “Mattress Mart” was open. This co-location of competing businesses is another feature in common with Turkish bazaars, but the Turks have more uniformity in hours of operation. Mattress Mart was less well-staffed, not as well-decorated or lit , and seemed to offer a slightly lower quality of mattress; lower spring count, shoddier coverings, etc. The salesman down-played the importance of the spring count (the number of springs in a queen-size mattress is the reference number for determining quality regardless of the size of mattress under discussion) In truth, there is little apparent difference between a mattress with 810 springs and a 792. Perhaps the nursery rhyme princess with the peas and the featherbeds could tell the difference, I could not. Not that you are going to find them in the same store, one store’s 810 compares to another’s 792 even from the same manufacturer. Not surprisingly, the Mart’s prices were a bit lower even taking into account the quality differences.

Home for a quick drink, one, no more, we’re on a quest and need unclouded judgment, and a short discussion, before returning to “Sleep Country “ for a final round of negotiations resulting in some minor price concessions flowing from the Mart’s lower price, the determination of a delivery schedule, the inclusion of a few bonus items (pillows) and the deal was done.

Now we needed sheets, pillow cases and a comforter for this giant new bed. These items are amazingly expensive. The first stop was, once again, Sears, which had a limited selection of good but not really luxurious quality, just what would be expected from Sears. A colour decision was made and the selected goods were put on the card, packed up and taken home. One interesting wrinkle, the store gives you a couple of weeks with the goods to decide to keep them. This can be prolonged, in anticipation of the goods going on sale, by returning them within the fourteen days, and re-purchasing them to start the fourteen days over again! Once they are substantially reduced there is a final return and re-purchase. Why didn’t I know about this years ago?

No sooner were we home with the goods (still with no bed on which to display them) than buyer’s remorse set in. A chance visit to Beddington’s in Bell’s Corners, revealed higher quality bedding at a lower price. The return of the original items to Sears was both genuine and final..

In due course the bed was delivered and set up, with a few shortages settled amicably by Sleep Country’s delivery and sales staff, and a great night’s sleep was had by all. What a difference a good mattress makes. Almost makes up for the hassle of buying one. Let’s not talk about the expense, but I don’t suppose there was fifty dollars difference either way in the price from one major retailer or another. It is a bit reassuring for us that of five or six couples whom we know that have purchased a new mattress recently, all have ended up doing business with the same company we did. By the way we have received no promotional consideration for this report nor did we ask for any.

Jim Elliott

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