What can we learn from that New Yorker article about how to buy a new mattress.
In a recent article for the New Yorker, Patricia Marx posed a somewhat tongue-in-cheek proposal: “How To Buy A New Mattress Without A Ph.D in Chemistry.” Part explainer, part first-hand reporting (and, of course, all classic New Yorker wit), the piece follows Marx on her personal exploration of the mattress shopping experience. Along the way, she takes a few narrative detours to outline the history of the mattress, explain the different types of mattresses and materials available in the market today—and occasionally share morsels of wisdom from a variety of different industry players. The result is, as you can probably guess from the title, a far from flattering portrait of the mattress retail industry. In fact, in many ways, it could be considered a scathing critique. In it, she highlights hypocrisies, debunks myths and shares personal frustrations. But, for those of us working inside the mattress industry, it is also an invaluable read. Because while one stand-alone article in the New Yorker is hardly the word of the people, Marx’s words have resonated with consumers. And not only does she deftly pinpoint the parts of the mattress buying process most in need of improvement, she also underscores a difficult reality that both manufacturers and retailers must contend with—that the efforts to rehab the mattress industry’s reputation have come up lacking.
While the title and opening graph of the article may crib the rhetorical flair of a classic “How To” guide, Marx’s article is much more of a first-person narrative. But she does start off broad and bold: “Before we can talk about buying a new mattress, you’ll need a Ph.D. in chemistry and another in mechanical engineering,” she says. “…A master’s degree in marketing and bullshit will also come in handy.”
From there, she brings us along on a very comprehensive mattress buying journey. Along the way, she explores a variety of different purchasing options—from purely online brands to traditional brick-and-mortar retail to more experiential combinations of the two—in addition to testing out the full gamut of mattress types, materials and price points. And between some of the more snarky language, she actually does a good job of explaining some of the more complex aspects of the mattress world:
On mattress types:
“Let’s start with the basic types: innerspring coil, foam, hybrid (foam and innerspring), and adjustable air. Within each category are subcategories. There seem to be more kinds of foam mattresses than there are craft beers from Brooklyn, but don’t be fooled by proprietary terms like “Ambien-injected kosher crypto-foam.” There are actually only two types of foam: polyurethane, of which memory foam is a subset, and latex.”
“I could complicate matters further by discussing the effect of coil gauge on mattress comfort (higher gauge equals thinner wire equals softer mattress), but what is this? Spring semester of coil college?”
On the soft vs. firm debate:
“The mattress best suited to you is the one that keeps your spine in its natural S curve and relieves pressure points (shoulder and hips) by allowing you to sink into the surface just the right amount. In general, firmer mattresses are better for back and stomach sleepers and for people weighing more than two hundred and thirty pounds; softer mattresses are recommended for side sleepers and hummingbirds.”
And, ultimately, she ends up doling out some really solid mattress shopping advice:
“Amid all the shadiness and hyped marketing, how to choose? Before you resort to the “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” method, let me offer a few tips: Whether you buy online or in person, sample enough mattresses to figure out whether you prefer memory foam, latex, innerspring, adjustable air-filled, or some combination. Don’t buy any mattress that doesn’t come with a trial period.”
But of course, one of the most interesting aspects of the piece is the way in which she couches those insightful tidbits between a hefty amount of skepticism. Despite the attempts at reimagining the mattress buying process, a lot of consumers still approach it with the assumption that they are going to be duped or ripped off. Not only does this create an unpleasant shopping experience, it also complicates the RSA’s ability to really assist the shopper in finding the best mattress for their needs.
This feeling of mistrust was the driving force behind a lot of the DTC mattress disrupter branding a few years back. Don’t trust them, these brands said, they’re just trying to confuse you and rip you off—which is why we cut them out of the deal entirely. But, after nearly a decade, that value proposition has fallen short. Later on in the article, Marx dives deeper into the dubious nature of online mattress reviews, the pitfalls of buying a bed sight-unseen and even the basic difficulties in lugging a heavy boxed bed into your home. Turns out cutting out the middle man didn’t make mattress shopping any easier—it just created new, different problems on top of the existing ones.
But it’s important to remember that this sense of skepticism isn’t the consumer’s fault. While perhaps exacerbated by some more recent marketing tactics, this viewpoint has been around for a long time—and, for a lot of people, it is based on real-life personal experience as well. And it can be really hard to get those people to change their minds.
Since we at Sleep Retailer remain eternal optimists, our takeaway from reading this article was to see if as a real opportunity for the mattress industry. The fact of the matter is that, despite its less-than-stellar reputation—consumers have continued to buy mattresses nonetheless. Imagine what could happen if they felt positively about the experience! This article shows that not only is there still plenty of room to educate consumers about what goes into a mattress—but that there are still people actively wanting to learn as well.
Just because these negative sentiments are still out there in the ether, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people in the industry who have cracked the code on how to engage with consumers in a positive way. And while there may be no such thing as a silver bullet (every customer is different, of course)—sharing best practices and smart ideas amongst each other may help everyone find more success.
With this in mind, we wanted to cut through some of the flourish of Marx’s article and explore a few of the most pressing complaints she has about the mattress buying process.
Exploring The Biggest Critiques Of The Mattress Industry
Critique: Buying a mattress is too confusing.
This likely isn’t news to anyone in the industry. In fact, Colonial LLC just recently put out findings from a study that found that 60% of consumers are still confused about how to buy a mattress. While there are plenty of explainers across the internet, and store locations filled with experts ready to help, the message just hasn’t gotten through to everyone. That doesn’t mean it’s a hopeless cause, though. Sometimes it just takes time to reach new people—and sometimes that lack of listening means it’s time to mix things up and try a new message, platform or even spokesperson.
Critique: There are too many proprietary technologies and I can’t tell if any of it actually does anything.
When encountering a new idea for the first time, it’s understandable that some people may react with suspicion or confusion. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to shy away from it forever! What consumers are really looking for is evidence; proof that this new thing really does what you say it will. When you can point to clear explanations of how it works, why it works and what they can expect from it—they are more likely to open their minds to new solutions. Even better if they can experience the difference for themself and come to their own conclusions.
Critique: The bed-in-a-box I bought online was too heavy and hard to open.
Boxed beds offer the consumer a lot of convenience; they don’t have to deal with setting up a delivery window and they can get their new bed quickly and on their own timetable. But there is no doubt about it: boxed beds are heavy. While this may not be an issue for a strong person living in a single story home, it’s a totally different game for someone who maybe lives on the fourth-floor of an apartment building and has been slacking on their trips to the gym lately. Giving consumers the option of paying more for a delivery person, even if they’re buying a bed-in-a-box, could be a game changer for some consumers.
Critique: The three beds I just tried in the store all felt the same.
While you may be able to pinpoint the differences between all the different models on your showroom floor, to the uninitiated most mattresses feels like…well, mattresses. If the consumer is really coming in without any idea of what they want, it’s best to start with the extremes. Curating a selection of beds that you know will feel noticeably different will make it easier for them to decide what they like. Once they have a general sense of what type of mattress they’re looking for, then you can get into more of the fine-tuned details. At that stage, you can maybe even be a little upfront: these two will probably feel the same at first test, but here are the differences you will likely experience over time. Comfort plays a big role in the decision making process, but it’s not the only thing on the table.
At the end of the day, the process of finding the perfect mattress is always going to somehow be both simpler and more complicated than people want it to be. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make it a better experience. As always, constructive criticism can help you grow—and, in this case, can help point you in the direction of what matters most to people. Because, at the end of the day, there will always be room for us to improve, to learn more and try new ideas, explore their impact and evolve again. And more than just keeping things exciting, that sense of forward momentum is what helps us continue to grow.