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Busting the mattress racket

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 18, 2014

Maybe it doesn’t belong in the annals of great literature, but Seth Stevenson’s Slate piece on mattresses from November 2000 has been stuck in my brain for more than a decade. Mattresses are a scam, says Stevenson:

Is there a more maddening industry? They confuse us with silly product names (the Sealy Posturepedic Crown Jewel Fletcher Ultra Plush Pillowtop or the Sealy Posturepedic Crown Jewel Brookmere Plush?). They flummox us with bogus science (“pocketed coils”? “Microtek foundations”? “Fiberlux”?). And they weigh us down with useless features (silk damask ticking?). It’s like buying a used car, and almost as expensive — I’ve seen mattresses going for $7,000. What’s a consumer to do?

The secret to mattress shopping is that the product is basically a commodity. The mattress biz is 99-percent marketing. So just buy the cheapest thing you can stand and be done with it, because they’re pretty much all the same. And that’s all you need to know. But do read on — the world of sleep products is quite fascinating, and I’d like to share it with you.

So when I had to do some mattress shopping recently, I remembered reading a thread on Hacker News about Tuft & Needle. T&N is a start-up that, in the parlance of Silicon Valley VCs, is disrupting the mattress industry by offering products of similar quality at dramatically lower prices with an emphasis on customer service. Recode recently ran a piece on the company and their founders.

Park and Marino, who previously worked together at Los Angeles tech startup Mulu, turned to mattress-making in 2012 after Marino was disappointed by a $3,000-plus mattress. So the two posed as the owners of a small mattress store and called around to vendors to uncover the real cost of making Marino’s expensive purchase. The final calculation — a total of about $300 — confirmed their suspicions: There was significant opportunity to improve.

When I looked on Amazon, Tuft & Needle’s mattresses were, as billed, the top-rated mattresses on the site. So I bought one. (I also bought a DreamFoam bed, which is even cheaper than Tuft & Needle and also highly rated.) The beds from both companies come rolled up and vacuum packed. Once you puncture the thick plastic packaging, air comes whooshing back into the mattress, inflating to its proper size over a matter of hours. This process sounds exactly like the repressurization of an airlock from any number of sci-fi movies. As far as comfort goes, I can’t tell the difference between these beds and the $1700 memory foam mattress from Design Within Reach.

So yeah, if you’re in the market for a mattress, do some poking around…you might just save a few hundred dollars. (Note: these beds are memory foam beds, which are not everyone’s cup of tea. I switched to one several years ago and love it. YMMV.)

Update: Tuft & Needle is opening a retail location in SF. Not everyone is comfortable buying beds over the Internet I guess? (via @micahgoulart)

Update: Two months after I wrote this post, I asked people who had purchased memory-foam mattresses for their thoughts on them. The other day, Matt sent me a link to an online message board dedicated to mattresses called The Mattress Underground. One of the board’s admins did a long post comparing the choices in this category of mattress, which they referred to as “Simplified Choice Mattresses aka Disruptors, Bed In A Box, One Choice Fits All, Universal Comfort, Millennial Mattresses”. (via @mathowie)

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