If you tense up at the thought of buying a mattress, that’s understandable. For many shoppers, a mattress is a big, once-a-decade purchase, and no one wants to spend more than they have to. But for sellers (whether online or in-store), success is based on how good they are at separating you from your money. It’s their livelihood, and you can’t fault them for that. Still, this makes for an uneasy dynamic. To dissolve the tension—and, more importantly, to land a purchase that brings you joy—we spoke with mattress insiders and business experts about common tactics that sellers use to try to get you to buy, and how to navigate them.
(Before you get to the point of making a purchase, check out Wirecutter’s guides to innerspring, foam, hybrid, and under-$500 mattresses, as well as our guide to choosing a mattress to get you started.)
Trap #1: Vague claims about “premium” quality
Mattress sellers, both on a company’s site and in-store, love the word premium, and they use it to describe all sorts of components, from foam to coils to cover materials. The same goes for the terms natural, advanced, and high-performance. As Terri Long, owner of Long’s Bedding & Interiors in New York City, said, “There’s a lot of misleading non-information out there.” So you should press for specifics: What, exactly, is the mattress made from? Saatva CEO Ron Rudzin said he believes you should get “granular,” and so do we. Ask about the number of layers, the density of the foams, and the number and gauge (thickness) of the coils. As we explain in our guide to choosing a mattress, different people’s needs may vary, but generally, memory foams should have densities of at least 3 pounds per cubic foot (4 or 5 pounds per cubic foot if you weigh more than 200 pounds). Wirecutter’s higher-end innerspring picks have around 1,000 coils (in a queen), with gauges between 13 and 15 or so. If a company or a mattress store can’t (or won’t) reveal this information, then its mattresses probably aren’t, in fact, premium.
Trap #2: Promising “exclusives” that aren’t
Mattress chains or department stores often boast about carrying an “exclusive” bed from a certain brand, which you can buy only from them. But often the exclusive mattress is a near-clone of another model from the brand that is available elsewhere, perhaps at a better price. These slight variations in design and model names make comparison shopping hard, explained Eddie Bekov, founder and owner of Futonland in New York City. So study the brand’s site to acquaint yourself with its offerings and their basic components. Then use those details to spot similar models in other stores.
Trap #3: Inflating prices, then giving a discount
Mattress sellers can play games with pricing, for example, by marking up the cost above the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP), only to slash it down and claim an artificially dazzling “discount.” (Online mattress stores do their own version of this, by promoting an item as “on sale” from its MSRP, even though they rarely—or never—offer it at full price.) Before you walk into the store, research the MSRP for any mattress you’re interested in, and decide exactly the maximum you’re willing to spend. Still, it won’t be easy. “By definition, negotiation over buying a mattress is an adversarial process—it’s a zero-sum game,” said Utpal Dholakia, PhD, a marketing professor at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business and author of Psychology Today’s The Science Behind Behavior blog. “You have to be knowledgeable and you have to be firm.” If a salesperson depends on commission, a lower price means they’ll earn less money, said Rafi Mohammed, PhD, author of The Art of Pricing and contributor to the Harvard Business Review. That said, you may be more likely to snag an additional discount if you shop near the end of the month, when salespeople may be motivated to hit their sales goals.
Trap #4: Claiming there’s a “best” mattress
Online brands often tout their mattresses as being the “best.” But there is no best mattress—just one that works best for you. In-store sellers might try the same strategy, even if they sell mattresses from different companies, possibly due to a SPIF (sales performance incentive fund), in which the sale of a particular mattress brand means extra bonuses, on top of the commission. To make sure you’re shown the mattress you actually want, know what’s important to you so you can ask the right questions. “For most sellers, the worst and most common outcome is time spent but no sale, so your questions will typically be welcome,” said Frank Cespedes, PhD, author of Sales Management That Works and a Harvard Business School senior lecturer.
Trap #5: Overselling user reviews
Online reviews (both positive and negative) should be taken with a grain of salt. But it’s still worthwhile to read them on the company site or a third-party-retail site that allows you to filter for both negative and recent reviews. Use these as a tool to confirm (or not confirm) characteristics of the mattress, said Rodney Hammond, director of e-commerce merchandising at Raymour & Flanigan at the time of our interview. For example, online reviews may be helpful for getting a sense of a mattress’ durability, edge support, overall quality, and the company’s level of customer service. But they may not be so insightful for assessing subjective qualities like mattress comfort and firmness, since one online reviewer’s “just right” may be another’s “too hard” or “too soft.”
Trap #6: Hovering nearby to make a sale
Eager salespeople standing close by can make you feel pressured to commit—or walk out—before you’ve had the time to fully deliberate. They may be protecting their commission, or, noted Hammond, they may be trying to help. “It’s a delicate balance between making sure that customers get the attention they need but also not being overbearing,” he said. Some retail chains have invested in training so members of their sales team know how to make customers feel comfortable. If you need your space, simply tell them, Hammond said.
Trap #7: Bundling in “free” stuff
Whether it’s a pillow or sheets or an adjustable bed frame, no freebie thrown in with a mattress purchase is really free. “It’s baked into the cost,” said Mohammed. “They’re often items of high perceived value to the customer but low cost to the seller.” Cespedes advised researching the prices for each item individually. “There’s a difference between ‘free’ and a bundled purchase at a good price,” he said. Also, ask yourself whether the freebie is something of value to you to begin with. If it’s a cheap frame that breaks down or creaks, it may be more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, ask the seller to give you a discount for not taking the free stuff, Mohammed suggested.
Trap #8: Pressuring you to buy today
From banners on a mattress company website to flashy signs in a store window, warnings that a sale will end soon can send your adrenaline soaring for no good reason. There will always be a sale. You may have to wait anywhere from a few days to a few months, but there’s a predictable pattern of regular sales throughout the year. These include Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and around Thanksgiving. Do your research. Deals sites like slickdeals.net and our own Wirecutter Deals page can identify mattress deals for you, and price-tracking sites like camelcamelcamel.com can help confirm that a deal is really a deal, said Wirecutter’s deals editor Nathan Burrow. As for retail sellers who say they can guarantee the discount only today and not tomorrow: See Trap #3. Feeling pressured to commit to a mattress before you’re ready is not a good way to start a long-term relationship.
This article was edited by Courtney Schley and Kalee Thompson.