Mattresses might be soft to sleep on, but they are notoriously hard to buy. Various stores sell very similar mattresses under different names, thwarting attempts to compare prices. Salespeople often steer shoppers toward ultra-expensive products. And manufacturers highlight features that consumers can’t easily evaluate. As a result, many shoppers pay hundreds of dollars more than necessary—or end up sleeping for years on mattresses that they hate.

Beware of these traps…

TRAP: It’s very difficult to compare mattress prices from store to store. With the exception of certain specialty mattresses, each retailer typically uses product names and numbers that you won’t find anywhere else. This is true even when the mattresses are virtually identical, aside from cosmetic changes involving fabric colors and quilting patterns.

What to do: When you find a mattress that feels comfortable (see the “Mattress-Shopping Checklist“), jot down every available piece of information about what’s inside the mattress. Include the coil count and coil wire gauge…dimensions including the height…firmness (based on your judgment of where it falls on a one-to-10 firmness scale with one the firmest)…materials used…how the sleep surface is described…and what position the list price occupies compared with other mattresses at the store from the same manufacturer. When you visit other mattress retailers, examine mattresses that fall in the same general position in the manufacturer’s price scale until you find one that matches up very closely. Start there and compare coil counts, firmness and other characteristics of various models until you find one that seems to match. Lie on this mattress, if possible, to confirm that it feels about the same as the one you tried earlier.

Tell the salesperson that you found the corresponding mattress at the other store, and ask if he/she can beat the other store’s price. If the second store has the lower price, you could return to the earlier store and try the same tactic. Most mattress stores and many furniture stores will negotiate. Their list prices tend to be double their cost, so it’s perfectly reasonable to try to negotiate a price 20% to 40% off list price (which could mean a savings of $400 off a $1,000 mattress). Department stores often won’t negotiate, but they sometimes will honor their price-match guarantee if the customer shows that a mattress at another store is essentially identical despite different names. And the department store might offer a better deal on shipping and better return options if you’re not satisfied, both important considerations.

Reasonable price: You should be able to find a good queen-size mattress for $700 to $1,000—for guest rooms, $500 to $800.

TRAP: “Pillow top” softness may not last. So-called pillow-top mattresses feel great when you lie on them at the store. They have thick, soft layers of fiber and/or foam above the mattress springs. Trouble is, these thick layers soon will develop deep, annoying body indentations. The heavier you and/or your partner, the faster this will happen.

If you love the soft pillow-top feel, opt for a “plush top” instead. These have perhaps two to three inches of foam and fiber, rather than the four to six inches of a pillow top—and they will be less likely to develop deep body indentations. Plush tops also tend to be $100 to $300 less expensive than pillow tops.

Helpful: If there are two separate “tape edges”—ropelike lines—running around the mattress above and below the foam layers, it is called a pillow top.

TRAP: Warranties and satisfaction guarantees are less impressive than they seem. If you voice concern about whether a mattress is right for you, the salesperson might assure you that there’s no need to worry because the store offers a satisfaction guarantee.

Quiz the salesperson about this guarantee. Can you get cash back or only exchange the mattress for a different one—and how much time do you have to return it? Is there a restocking fee for returns? What about a pick-up charge or additional shipping charge for the replacement mattress? And if you purchase a mattress during a sale, will you be able to exchange it for one of similar list price or only for a lesser one with a list price similar to the sale price you initially paid?

Caution: Manufacturers’ mattress warranties cover only major defects. They won’t permit you to return the mattress because you don’t find it comfortable. Mattresses generally should be replaced every eight to 10 years.

TRAP: New foundations often are unnecessary. If you buy a mattress, expect the salesperson to push you to buy the matching foundation (what used to be called a box spring) as well. You might be told that this foundation will extend the life of your mattress or make it more comfortable or that not buying it will void the mattress warranty. None of this is likely to be true.

Unlike old-fashioned mattresses, many modern mattresses do not require you to flip them over from time to time, and these no-flip mattresses don’t require springs beneath them at all. Today’s “box springs” really are just simple wood-and-wire frames covered in fabric. These foundations cost retailers very little, yet they’re often sold for hundreds of dollars.

If your old foundation has no obvious problems such as sagging or cracking and is the same size as the new mattress, you can continue to use it. If you have an old spring-type box that flexes when you push down on it, you don’t want to use it with a new “no-flip” single-sided mattress.

If you have a platform bed or a bed with slats that are spaced no more than two inches apart, you can skip the box spring entirely—assuming that the resulting mattress height is not too low. If you do need a new foundation, purchase the one that’s matched (brand-wise) to your new mattress. Don’t feel that you need to match the fabrics. A lower-priced foundation of the correct size should be fine if you’re buying a single-sided mattress.

TRAP: A higher coil count doesn’t necessarily mean higher quality. For spring mattresses, mattress salespeople often stress high coil count—more springs per square inch—as they steer shoppers toward high-end models. It’s true that having more coils is better than having fewer coils, all else being equal, but all else is not equal when it comes to coils. Coils might be made from different materials or in different ways.

Example: A mattress with independent coils—coils each made from a separate piece of wire—is likely to do a better job of conforming to the contours of your spine than a mattress with coils made from continuous strands of wire, even if the coil count isn’t as high. Independent coils also do a much better job of isolating movement, a big plus for those who share a bed.

TRAP: Delivery and removal charges. Ask about delivery charges before you agree to buy a mattress. Some retailers provide free delivery, but others see it as a way to slip one last sneaky fee into the deal.

Also ask whether removal of the old mattress is included in delivery—there’s sometimes an additional charge for this. Include any delivery and pick-up fees when you compare prices at different stores.

TRAP: An expensive specialty mattress might have drawbacks. Solid foam and dual-zone, air-filled mattresses look great in ads and can feel great when you lie on them—but there might be issues that the salesperson won’t mention. For instance…

Memory foam mattresses such as those made by Tempur-Pedic do a wonderful job of conforming to the contours of the body and providing support—but they also make some sleepers feel too hot.

If you want foam but are a warm sleeper, consider a natural latex foam mattress, which sleeps cooler. Some synthetic foam mattresses have gel embedded in them to keep sleepers cooler, but these mattresses are extremely heavy and difficult to move.

Dual-zone, air-filled mattresses such as Sleep Number by Select Comfort provide separate firmness controls for each side of the bed. But humidity and perspiration tend to build up around the internal air bladders of even the best-made air-filled mattresses. Mildew and mold can spread if the bladders are not cleaned frequently using liquid detergent.

These mattresses can be opened up for cleaning and for ventilation—but make sure that the mattress is completely dry before closing it up.


Lie on a mattress for at least 10 to 15 minutes in the showroom to make sure that it feels comfortable—and that it properly supports your spine.

Doctors used to recommend firm mattresses for back health, but they’ve since concluded that firm mattresses actually provide poor spine support. Backs do best in beds that allow the spine to be straight and supported as you sleep. When you lie on your side on a too firm mattress, your shoulders and hips don’t sink in far enough for your spine to stay straight…and when you lie on your back, your hips don’t sink in far enough for the mattress to support your lower back. A medium-firm mattress is the best choice for the vast majority of sleepers.

The mattress industry uses terms like “firm,” “medium-firm,” “plush,” and “pillow-soft.” It may be more helpful to use a one-to-10 firmness scale with one as the firmest and four- to-six as medium. Ask the salesperson where each mattress falls on this firmness scale so that you can learn what firmness number you like best. Then you can specify this number when comparing other mattresses.

Exception to the medium-firmness rule: Side-sleepers prone to hip or shoulder discomfort might do better on a soft mattress.

Helpful: Bring someone along on your shopping trip to make sure that your spine is straight as you lie on your side…and to confirm that there’s no gap between your lower back and the mattress when you lie on your back.