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Getting started

You should think about buying a new mattress if you wake up tired or achy, you tend to sleep better at hotels than at home, your mattress looks saggy or lumpy, you’re over 40, or your mattress is at least five to seven years old. Use this mattress guide to help with your purchase.

Choose a size

Most sleepers shift positions during the night, and cramped quarters can keep them from moving freely. Standard mattress dimensions are king, 76×80 inches; California king, 72×84 inches; queen, 60×80 inches; full, or double, 53×75 inches; and twin, 38×75 inches.

Consider an innerspring first

A conventional innerspring mattress is the most common choice and often the least expensive. Memory foam, which was developed to protect astronauts against g-forces, is heat-sensitive and conforms to your body. Tempur-Pedic is the big name, but there are other brands. Not all memory foam feels the same, and it can take time to get used to. Many of today’s innersprings, billed “hybrids,” add a layer of foam over the springs. Another option is an adjustable-air mattress; with this inflatable kind, you can choose a different firmness for each half of the bed. Select Comfort (which manufactures Sleep Number) is the major brand, though other manufacturers, such as Tempur-Pedic, have entered the fray.

Decide where to shop

Buy at a store, not online or over the phone, unless you’ve already tried the identical mattress in a store. A product manager for Tempur-Pedic told us that more online customers return their mattresses than shoppers who buy in a store. If you’re commited to buying online, check the return policy.

Department stores have frequent sales and lots of brands, but can be crowded, cluttered, and short on sales help. Bedding stores such as Sleepy’s and 1-800-Mattress, and some furniture stores, offer plenty of variety and are often less crowded. We found the salespeople at these stores more attentive and sometimes more willing to bargain. Start out with the least expensive bed from a few top brands, and work your way up in cost. Hint: Stores keep the priciest models up front.

Company stores selling only Duxiana or Select Comfort provided especially good service, because employees can afford to take time with customers. Queen-size sets cost about $5,000 to $8,000 at Duxiana (there’s no bargaining) and about $900 to $3,800 at Select Comfort (there are occasional sales). One specialty bed we tested, Tempur-Pedic, is sold at a variety of stores, but we found that discounts have historically been few and far between.

Understand the name game

Manufacturers usually modify innerspring mattresses for different sellers, changing the color, padding, quilting pattern, and so forth. Then each seller can call the mattress by a different name. Consumers are the losers. Because such mattresses are at least somewhat different, and the names vary, you can’t comparison-shop. (A big chain such as Sears or Bloomingdale’s has the same model names for the same beds at all of its stores, usually at the same price.)

Some mattress makers provide helpful information on their websites. Go to, for example, and you’ll find basic information about the company’s flagship Beautyrest lines, including TruEnergy, ComforPedic, Natural Care, and BeautySleep. You’ll see those names wherever you find Beautyrest, and all beds in each line share attributes.

Choose the right firmness

Don’t rely on descriptors. One company’s ultraplush might be another’s supersoft. Orthopedists once recommended sleeping on an extremely firm mattress, but there’s little evidence to support that view. The best surface is purely subjective, says a spokesman for the Stanford University Center for Human Sleep Research.

A study published in the British medical journal Lancet suggested that people who suffer from lower back pain would benefit from a medium-firm mattress. That made sense to several experts we interviewed. If a mattress is too firm, it won’t support the body evenly and may cause discomfort at the heaviest points (hips and shoulders). If it’s too soft, a sleeper could sink into the surface and have a hard time moving, which could cause tingling, numbness, or aches.

Alan Hedge, Ph.D., professor of ergonomics at Cornell University, noted that the best mattress supports the spine at all points while allowing it to maintain its natural curve. By age 40, Hedge said, skin loses elasticity and becomes more sensitive to pressure points, so a softer, more cushiony surface is more comfortable. “Slightly softer works better because there’s less compression on the skin,” he said.

Do the 15-minute, in-store test

Don’t be embarrassed to lie down on lots of mattresses in the store. Salespeople expect it. Wear loose clothes and shoes that you can slip off. Spend at least five minutes on each side and on your back (your stomach, too, if that’s a preferred sleeping position). Panelists who took beds home for a month-long trial rarely changed the opinion they formed after the first night. On the whole, their opinions were the same as those of our in-store testers, about 75 percent of whom told us, in a recent subscriber survey, that trying out the mattress beforehand helped them sleep better.

Do you need a new box spring?

Foundations can sell for as much as the mattress, even though they’re generally just a wood frame enclosing stiff wire and covered with fabric to match the mattress.

We found that companies frequently pair the same foundation with mattresses in different price ranges. You can save by buying a higher-priced mattress and a lower-priced foundation. Once the bed is made, no one will know. If the old box has bouncy springs instead of stiff wire, it should be replaced.

If your current foundation is only a few years old, with no rips, warps, creaks, or “give,” consider using it with a new mattress. Though most respondents to our recent subscriber survey replaced their foundation with their mattress, roughly 80 percent of those who kept their old one reported that they were sleeping better after replacing just the mattress. So if your box spring isn’t broken and is still structurally sound, consider keeping it and saving several hundred dollars.

If your new mattress is ultrathick, consider pairing it with a “low profile” foundation, 4 to 6 inches thick, to reduce height.

Be wary of ‘comparables’

If you like a mattress at one store and ask elsewhere for something similar, you’re likely to be steered toward a same-brand mattress that’s supposed to have the same construction, components, and firmness. It’s unlikely. Mattress makers offer some lines nationally, but when those brands are sold through major chains such as Macy’s, Sears, and Sleepy’s, they’re for lines exclusive to those chains. And manufacturers don’t publish a directory of comparables. Retailers that claim to sell them, insiders say, generally snoop in competing stores and compile a list of beds that appear equivalent. But when we went to three bedding chains and asked for mattresses similar to those we’d bought at three department stores, five of the six mattresses were way off the mark. A two-sided mattress, for example, was said to be comparable to a one-sided bed. Ultimately, there’s no way for you to know which mattress is actually the same as or comparable to one in another store.

Look for a comfort guarantee

Some retailers give you two weeks to several months to return or exchange a mattress or box spring you don’t like. Everyone plays by different rules, and a return usually costs you. At Macy’s, you’re encouraged to let your body adjust to the mattress; then you have 60 days to contact the company about returning or exchanging it, but you’ll pay a $75 pickup fee plus a 15 percent “usage” fee. Sears has a 30-day comfort policy (with 60 days to return or exchange it); similarly, you’ll pay return shipping plus a 15-percent restocking fee.

Don’t count on warranties

They cover defects in materials and workmanship, not comfort or normal wear and are usually in effect for 10 years. Some mattress warranties don’t cover full replacement value; instead an annual usage charge is deducted from the current retail price.

When you make a claim, the store or manufacturer sends an inspector to your house. You’ll need to show a receipt. If you say the mattress has sagged, the inspector checks whether the dip is below the allowable limit, 1 1/2 inches. A company will void a warranty if you’ve removed the “do not remove” tag, if the mattress is soiled, or if it has uneven support from a box spring or frame–a common reason for sagging, says a Simmons spokesman.

Wait for a sale, and bargain

Specialty mattresses usually have a set price, but you can save at least 50 percent off list price for an innerspring. Ads for “blowout” sales make such events seem rare. They aren’t. If the price is good, buy; if not, wait. Our shopper spent $1,300 more for a Serta Perfect Sleeper set at one Sears store than for the same set at another Sears a week later.

An advertised “bargain” may not be all it seems, so read the fine print. A flyer from one store we saw touted 75 percent savings on mattresses, but a footnote revealed that the list price from which the discount was calculated “may not be based on actual sales.”

Have options at several stores

If you’re ready to shop elsewhere, you may be able to get a discount. When our reporter asked a salesman at a 1-800-Mattress showroom whether there was a better deal at the company’s website, the salesman said he’d double the value of a $100 Internet coupon if the bed was bought at the store.

Seal the deal

Ask about trial periods, return policies, and restocking and pickup fees before buying–especially at warehouse clubs such as Costco or Sam’s Club, where you can’t try out mattresses. Also ask about disposal of your old mattress (some deliverers will take it to the curb, others charge to cart it away). Insist on a no-substitutions clause in the sales agreement, in case the bed you ordered is out of stock. When it’s delivered, check for stains and other damage. Insist on a replacement if you’re not happy.

Leave the tag on

In case you have to file a warranty claim, you’ll need that do-not-remove-under-penalty-of-law label that’s sewn onto the mattress. (If the tag isn’t there, don’t buy the mattress.) While the stern warning is aimed at retailers and manufacturers, not consumers, removing the tag could come back to haunt you if you can’t resolve a warranty problem with the retailer and you need to plead your case to the manufacturer. The tags are important because they contain identifying information, a description of the filling (for example, polyester, goose down, feathers, or cotton) and the percentage of each, whether–and how much of–the materials are new or used, and details about flame retardancy. Other labeling requirements include country of origin (for example, “Made in the U.S.A. of imported materials” or “Shell made in China, filled and finished in the U.S.A.”), and the name of the manufacturer, importer, distributor, or vendor. We checked the policies of three of the largest mattress makers, Sealy, Serta, and Simmons, and all agreed that you must have the tag in order to have your claim processed. What’s not 100-percent clear is whether the tag must be permanently attached to the mattress or whether it’s adequate simply to possess a tag that’s been cut off. We suggest you play it safe and leave the tag alone.


If you’ve only had an innerspring bed and it’s worn out, it’s easy to think you’ll only be satisfied paying hundreds more for a newer type. But there’s good news: Our years of testing have shown that, whatever the type of mattress, all but the cheapest are apt to be sturdy. Here are the mattress types to consider:


These are traditional steel coils in various configurations and are often the least expensive–and the most widely sold. Variations include special layers of cushioning, some with infused gel. Sealy, Serta, Simmons, and Spring Air are the top sellers.

Pros:Changing positions tends to be easy.
Cons:Some models readily transmit bouncing from one sleep partner to the other.

Memory foam

Basically polyurethane with additional ingredients, memory foam has been a favorite of respondents to our surveys who suffer from pain. A variation is latex foam, claimed to be hypoallergenic.

Pros:Traditional memory foam softens when you lie on it and soon molds to your body. Once you get up, it springs back to its original shape. A few models come in dual firmness–say, firm on one side, soft on the other. And this type helps isolate you from movement on the other side of the bed.
Cons:Some owners feel it sleeps hot, and some mattresses require effort to turn in your sleep. Air it out before first use.

Adjustable air

With this type, you inflate it to your desired firmness using a pump attached to the bed. Many include additional layers such as foam.

Pros:Most also let you inflate individual halves to different firmnesses to suit each sleep partner.
Cons:Respondents to our recent survey, though pain sufferers tended to be satisfied, were more likely to complain about price. Should you wish to adjust the bed during the night, the noise of the pump can be annoying.


This moldable, flexible substance most typically serves as a layer on another type of bed.

Pros:It’s claimed to help a mattress breathe better and feel cooler, especially for memory foam.
Cons:Our tests show that mattresses without infused gel “breathed” about as well.



The construction of a mattress determines the way it feels. Most stores have a cutaway or cross-section display of at least some mattresses. Despite the claims, there is no best bed for everyone. Spend time finding the mattress that’s most comfortable for you and supports you best. Here are the mattress features to consider.


This is the outermost layer, usually polyester or cotton-polyester. Fancier mattresses may have damask, jersey knit, microsuede, wool, cashmere, or silk. More than the material, ticking is an important contributor to sleeping comfort. What really counts is the stitching that binds the ticking to the top padding, which affects how the mattress feels. A large quilt pattern provides a deep, cushioned sensation. A smaller pattern tends to feel firmer.

Top padding

This is usually polyurethane foam, with or without polyester batting. Polyester batting provides a soft feel and helps to dissipate perspiration. “Egg crate” foam feels softer than a solid slab.


They provide the main support in a conventional innerspring mattress. Heavier-gauge coils provide a stiffer suspension, and lighter-gauge coils feel springier. But despite the hype, all types of coils–hourglass, continuous wire, or individually pocketed–are up to the task. Some manufacturers beef up the edges of the mattress with more closely spaced coils, slabs of stiff foam, or thicker wire. Stiffer edges keep you from feeling as though you’ll roll off, and they provide a solid place to sit and tie your shoelaces.

Box spring

It may sell for as much as the mattress, though it’s generally just a wood frame enclosing stiff wire. Companies often pair the same box spring, or foundation, with mattresses in various price ranges, so you may save by buying a higher-priced mattress with a lower-priced foundation. If you buy an extra-thick mattress, consider pairing it with a low-profile box spring to reduce height. There’s nothing springy about box springs. They simply support the mattress. And for a foam mattress, the box spring is just a box, more properly called a “foundation.”


Foam- and feather-filled toppers are sold separately and are designed to go on top of the mattress. A topper may soften a bed that’s too hard, but price is no guarantee of a good night’s sleep. A $890 topper made one of our testers feel as though he were sinking in quicksand. Even the higher-priced, feather-filled ones might shift overnight and become lumpy. You won’t need a topper if you pick the right mattress.

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