Why You Should Spring for a Really Good Mattress
Life + Money

Why You Should Spring for a Really Good Mattress

Get over it. A good night's sleep is an expensive investment.

Up all night? If you’ve been able to rule out sleep apnea or other sleeping disorders, think twice about reaching for sleeping pills – the culprit might actually be your mattress. Replacing it won’t be cheap, but it may be worth it.

The right mattress really does make a difference. A study by the nonprofit research organization RTI International found that a mattress’ firmness has “statistically significant effects on both sleep and daytime functioning.” Sleep doctor and neurologist Christopher Winter of Charlottesville, Va., says that mattresses come up as an issue frequently among the problem sleepers he treats.   

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Sleep products are getting more attention than ever because of a growing body of research that points to the physical and mental importance of a good night’s sleep. Tired drivers cause almost 20 percent of all serious car crash injuries, and people who don’t get enough sleep have lower productivity and more health problems, according to research by the National Academy of Sciences. Sleep deprivation costs the economy $63 billion a year in lost productivity.

In many parts of the sleep products industry, profits have zoomed. Sleep disorder clinics saw their revenues grow 12 percent per year from 2008 to 2013. Between 1999 and 2010, the use of prescription sleep medications almost doubled in the U.S. Yet, in the mattress industry, revenue has been flat for the past five years, IBIS World, a business research firm, reports.   

That doesn’t mean mattresses themselves have gotten cheaper. Innerspring beds run $1,600 on average, according to data collected by independent consumer site Sleeplikethedead.com, and mattress prices have risen about 2 percent a year since 2008. The price tag reflects a labor-intensive manufacturing process, pricey materials, and huge markups by wholesalers and retailers. 

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Mattresses sell for a lot of money in part because the manufacturers’ labor costs are relatively high. They spend only 9 cents on materials and equipment for every dollar they invest in labor.

The prices of some of their key inputs have spiked. Polyurethane foam, made from crude oil, is a common material in many mattresses. Oil prices have risen more than 50 percent in the last 7 years, with prices shooting up about 30 percent in both 2010 and 2011. The price of the steel used in inner springs has also grown more than 50 percent since 2009.

Material increases, however, aren’t the only reason prices have gotten so high. Markups are also huge – both wholesalers and retailers charge prices 30 to 40 percent over what they pay, says Consumer Reports. Ronald Czarnecki, a retired manager of mattress stores and author of Shop for Sleep and Survive the Bite, says mattress stores inflate their prices because they expect customers to bargain.

As with cars, consumers can choose from a huge range of products and prices. At the low end, name-brand innerspring mattresses sell for as little as $250. At the high end, Duxiana sells an innerspring mattress for $12,600. For wealthy shoppers, the Swedish company Hästens makes a mattress set that sells for as much as $100,000 – a product that the company says takes at least 140 hours to build. 

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Sleep consultant Nancy Rothstein, who addresses corporations and other organizations about sleep wellness, sounds a little frustrated with people who complain about mattress prices. She says we’ll spend more of our lives sleeping than doing almost anything else, including driving, and advises clients to view a mattress as an investment and to redirect their money accordingly: “If you need a car and a mattress, go down a couple of grand on the car and spend it on your mattress,” she urges.

Getting the Right Price

Experts have tips on making a good choice. Northern California sleep consultant Patty Tucker says you should deal with a store that sells sleep, not mattresses. That means they should ask you a lot of questions to figure out your sleep needs, not try to hard sell you on the bed that’s 30 percent off “if you act now.”

Take time to test mattresses if you’re in a store. Winter says he sees people try out a bed for 5 minutes in the showroom and think they know what they want. That’s not enough – you need at least 15 minutes in the position you most often sleep in, which is usually the one you wake up in, says Czarnecki. Ideally, the bed should come with a comfort guarantee that allows you to bring it back if it doesn’t feel right.   

The fine print also could tip the balance. Is removal of your existing mattress part of the deal? How long does the company’s comfort guarantee run? Some last 90 days, others up to a year, Czarnecki says. How much do they charge for delivery? How long is the warranty?

And because of the huge markups, you should bargain with mattress stores. “You can usually negotiate a price that’s between 30 and 50 percent off those marked prices,” says Czarnecki. That’s not true of department stores, whose prices are fixed, he says. 

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Individuals on a tight budget who want to improve their shuteye have a few options. Nick Robinson, who created the site Sleep Like the Dead, says you can get good prices from big-box discount stores by buying online. He bought his memory foam mattress on line for $700 and has been happy.

Tucker says that mattress pads – like foam “egg crates” and memory foam toppers – can temporarily improve your comfort for not much money. What you should never do, says Czarnecki, is buy a used mattress. The potential for embedded dead skin, dust mites, and bedbugs should dissuade you from that idea forever.

How much you’ll pay for a good mattress depends on who you ask. Czarnecki says a good queen-sized bed will run $700 to $1000. For Tucker, the range is wide: She paid $1800 for her queen. And Rothstein says you shouldn’t think that $2000 is outrageous.

In the end, you’ll have to decide exactly how much a good night’s sleep is worth to you.

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