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Excerpt from Tricks of the Trade

Buying a Mattress

Everyone wants a good night's sleep, but the nightmare of mattress shopping can keep you up at night. It's an industry practically set up to be consumer unfriendly. We first investigated the world of mattress sales for a piece on NBC's Today show. At the time, some of our friends and coworkers thought it was a strange subject to tackle. "What can you say about mattress?" we were asked. "How much interesting information can there be?" Well, after our story aired these skeptics had learned exactly what anyone whose ever shopped for a mattress knows: finding the mattress you want at a good price can be a monumental task. At it's best, the retail mattress industry is set up to create consumer confusion. At its worst, it uses unscrupulous salespeople, and high-pressure sales techniques to make a buck.

INDUSTRY SECRETS REVEALED: EXPOSING SLEAZY SALES PRACTICES

"It's a dirty business," one mattress retailer told us. "That's the way it's been done for a hundred years and like many industries they just don't change." Buyer certainly beware when it comes to purchasing a mattress. Shopping for a new car can be less frustrating. Our investigation revealed the bedding industry is actually set up to confuse consumers, so it's difficult to know whether you're getting a bargain or a bad deal. On top of that many retailers employ sleazy and sometimes illegal sales tactics meant to manipulate unknowing and unprepared consumers.

THE NAME GAME

As you know by now, we're big fans of comparison shopping. Checking out merchandise at several different stores can save you money and protect you from being ripped-off. But it's almost impossible to comparison shop when buying a mattress because the industry is built on a system that flies in the face of the smart shopper. "It was very frustrating," says Todd of New York City. We met Todd at a department store while he was shopping for a mattress. He had just moved to New York to start a new job and was trading in his college futon for a real bed. "I felt like the more stores I went to, the more confusing it became. My clarity of knowledge of beds didn't increase as I shopped around, it just got worse and worse."

Todd's confusion is understandable. For example, let's say you go to a store, bounce around on a few beds and pick out one you like. Naturally, before you buy you want to shop around to see if you can get a better deal. You write down the brand and model name of the mattress you like, the Sealy Posturepedic Paisley, for instance, and head out for another store. But you can't find the Paisley anywhere else. Why? Well, all major mattress manufacturers provide different stores different names for essentially the same mattress. The Sealy Posturepedic Paisley in one store might be labeled the Genoa, Ashton, Mayfield, Optimum, or Escort in another, depending on where you shop. There might be cosmetic changes to each of these differently named mattresses, like the color of the ticking, but they're essentially all identical inside. The industry calls these mattresses "comparables" and the main reason comparables are produced is to make it more difficult for consumers to bargain hunt. We found for that similar Sealy Posturepedic mattress set we could have spent anywhere from $579 to $1,500. But most consumers just never realize that these are all basically identical mattress sold at quite a wide range of prices.

Joe Vicens runs 1-800-Mattress, a company that sells mattresses over the phone. He says the industry devised the comparables system to confuse consumers. "The department store, retail store, whoever it is, they want to have exclusivity on a name." explains Vicens. "So if you go into a store and see the mattress you like in pink, then walk into a store across the street and that exact same mattress would be blue and have a different name. It's becomes very confusing." Manufacturers make anywhere from six to 12 basic mattress models, called levels, then make several comparables for each level. Therefore a level 2 Serta could be called a Sonora, Camelot, Winfield, or St. Phillip depending on what store you go to shop. To make matters even more confusing, companies change their mattress names every few years.

Comparables exist in other industries, but are most prevalent the bedding business. Some say the system started back in the 1970s when new trade laws prohibited all manufacturers from setting minimum retail prices. As a result many discount mattress stores opened up and cut into department and furniture store profits. The department and furniture stores wanted consumers to think their store carried exclusive products and not just something that could be picked up any store, so they used their power to force the manufacturers to produce different named mattresses for their stores. Soon the mattress chains wanted their own models too. Now manufacturers can have more than 10 names for essentially the same bed.

The retailers claim their models are different from those of their competitors and this may be true to a certain extent. Many retailers request the manufacturers to add things like extra padding, a certain type of ticking, or special lumbar supports for their comparable mattresses. However, most of these changes are relatively minor, and the average consumer won't be able to tell the differences.

We tried to ask the manufacturers about "comparables," for our Today show report but both Simmons and Serta turned down our request for an interview. Sealy, however, invited us to one of their factories and explained that changing the system is almost impossible. "What sounds easy isn't," said a Sealy spokesperson. "Even though we produce the product, it's sold by independent merchants who have the right to buy or not buy the products they want." Although he admitted that it would be much more cost effective to avoid making over fifty different types of beds, he also said it wasn't feasible "We would not be successful in marketing our product." he explained. "The [retailers] would not buy the same product that everyone else carries."

We found that the manufacturers blame the confusing system on the retailers, and the retailers pin it on the manufacturers, but in the end it's the consumer who loses. Some industry insiders criticize us for making too much of the name game. They say buying a mattress is like buying a pair of shoes or a clothes. Most consumers usually don't comparison shop for these items; they simply try something on, and if it's comfortable and attractive they buy it. But we think buying a bed isn't a fashion choice. You don't have to look good in your mattress. You want to shop for comfort, but you should also be able to shop for price.

This bedding industry tactic occasionally draws the attention of the government. Both the Connecticut and New York state legislatures considered laws that would put an end to the comparables system, and the Federal Trade Commission did a preliminary investigation into the trade practice, but nothing ever changed. Let's face it, regulating the mattresses industry isn't exactly the governments top priority, so you'll need to protect yourself. Comparison shopping for a mattress isn't totally impossible, and later on we'll give you some shopping strategies to ensure you getting a fair deal (See Consumer Challenge: Dare to Compare)

SALES, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE

Our hidden camera investigation for the Today show revealed that running bogus sales and using high pressure sales tactics are rampant in the mattress industry. Although the practices have gotten many stores in trouble with the law, they're such effective techniques that they're still prevalent in the industry. Salespeople are taught that once a customer leaves their store, odds are they're not coming back. Since most mattress salespeople get paid by commission, if they can't close the deal, they don't get paid.

"Buying a car was easier" says Todd, who was surprised at the high-pressure sales techniques he encountered while shopping for his mattress. "The salespeople say they just want you to be comfortable, but at the same time they're sort of hovering over you." Todd found that just about every store he went to had a big sale going on. "At one store the salesman threw like 20 different sales at me," recalls Todd. "He said, 'Didn't you read the paper! Big Sale! Big Sale!'" Todd also says that almost everywhere he shopped the store's sales staff made him feel like it was the last possible day he'd be able to get the special deal. "They were like this is the last second you're going to get this price," says Todd. "There was a real immediacy about the whole thing."

Retails know that the notion of a "sale" always creates a feeling of urgency and gives the customer an additional incentive to buy. Consumers assume a sale is a rare event, but in the mattress biz there's often a sale every week. When the Labor Day Weekend sale is over, the Bonus Saving sale starts, followed by the Big Anniversary Sale, the Blow Out Sale, and the Coupon Sale. We shopped at ten stores, eight had sales going on. Our experience at a New Jersey mattress discount store was typical. When we asked for the price of the specific mattress we wanted, the saleswoman said, "Are you looking to purchase now? I got a one day sale working." Imagine our good fortune when the special one-day sale could save us over $400. When we told the saleswoman we wanted to get a cup of coffee and think about it she said, "You're going to think about a price like that?" She told us the price was good until that night and the next day the bed would be back up to it's regular price of $919. As we walked out the store she warned, "I'm not kidding you, they're running one day sales." However, we had the feeling that she was kidding, so we sent a coworker back to the same store five days later. Sure enough, the bed was still on sale.

The department stores we shopped at had their own trick. While there is less sales pressure, the stores often use a technique known in the retail world as "high-low pricing." That's when a store sets prices at an initially inflated price for a limited period of time and then discounts the merchandise for weeks on end making an item sound like it's on sale. For instance, the regular price for one queen-size set at Macy's was $1,735. But, thanks to a week-long sale, the price had dropped to $779. It may sound great, but the fact is that Macy's and other department stores sell few beds at the ridiculously high "regular" price. We couldn't find any other store that sold the comparable bed for over $800. High-low pricing practices are a gray area of federal and state laws. As long as a store occasionally sells their merchandise at the higher price, it's not illegal. But some stores just don't even bother trying to sell the bed at the "regular" price. Sales that never end are a deceptive and fraudulent business practice and occasionally a state Attorney General slaps a store with a fine or penalty but the effect in usually only temporary.

Another illegal maneuver to beware of is the old bait and switch. For example, a store will advertise a mattress at a great price, but when you go to buy the mattress the salesperson tells you it's either not available or they bad mouth it and attempt to switch you to a more expensive mattress. They might try to sell you a mattress made by a company you never heard of. An off-brand might be cheaper, but they're frequently of lower quality. Off-brand mattresses also often have a large markup, so the store can make a bigger profit if they can get the consumer to switch. Generally it's best to stick with mattresses made by manufacturers you recognize. However beware even the major manufacturers make cheap beds which are known in the industry as the "promotional" or "sub-premium" line. These beds are also of inferior quality and probably not suitable for most people. Remember, quality costs money, but if you're being pressured to buy or you're uncomfortable with a salesperson's technique, simply walk out of the store.

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For more tricks of the trade and insider secrets to getting the best deal buying a new mattress please read our book.

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