Mattress shopping guidelines - finding the best quality and value

Guidelines for Determining Quality and Value While Mattress Shopping

I’ve had so many questions on the forum asking about major brand mattresses or mass-market mattress retailers that I thought it would be helpful to put together a set of guidelines to help consumers bypass most of the traps and pitfalls of mattress shopping and to help cut through the confusion and frustration of finding your perfect mattress. While these guidelines will in most cases eliminate 75-90% of the mattresses that most people would normally consider or purchase (without realizing the poor quality or value of the mattresses they are looking at or which they were led to through misleading advertising and claims) … it will also help to find the remaining 10 - 25% which is where real quality and value lives.

I will edit or add to these over time but for now here are my “top ten”…

Top ten mattress shopping tips.

1. Avoid buying a mattress made by any of the major national brands

Avoid buying a mattress made by any of the major national brands such as Sealy, Simmons, Serta, Tempurpedic. While they are not all “bad” mattresses and some may even be good quality, … for most people and circumstances, none of them would have good value when compared to similar mattresses made by smaller independent manufacturers.

2. Buy a mattress based on the quality of materials that are in it and how it is constructed

Buy a mattress based on the quality of materials that are in it and how it is constructed … never by the brand. Every mattress manufacturer or retailer should be able to tell you exactly what is in every mattress they sell layer by layer (from a cutaway or spec sheet) and the benefits and qualities of each material and layer. This includes the density of any polyfoam or memory foam, the type and blend of any latex, the type of fabrics or quilting materials or fibers that are used in the mattress cover (ticking), and any other materials in the mattress. If they can’t or won’t provide this information … pass them by unless you are willing to go through the time and frustration of trying to find out yourself and hitting the many roadblocks that may be involved in trying to research and discover this information if it is even available at all

3. Focus your attention on local factory direct manufacturer outlets or smaller sleep shops who carry alternative brands

Focus your attention on local factory direct manufacturer outlets or smaller sleep shops who carry alternative brands and have a direct relationship with the manufacturer. These will generally have the most knowledgeable salespeople and the best value and will be more interested in helping you find a mattress that is perfect for your own unique needs instead of selling you something they can get you excited about with a (mostly misleading) story. These are the places which usually will be open and transparent about the materials in your mattress and encourage comparison shopping rather than using sales techniques.

4. Never buy a mattress with more than around an inch or so of lower density polyfoam

Never buy a mattress with more than around an inch or so of lower density polyfoam (less than 1.8 lbs or so in one sided or 1.5 lbs in two sided) or memory foam (less than 4.0 lbs or so) or unknown foam in the comfort layers (upper pressure relieving layers) and the quilting combined as this could become the weak link in your mattress and could be subject to early softening and body impressions. Warranties will not usually cover this because of their exclusions and because the softening of memory foam and polyfoam and the loss of comfort and support that goes with it is considered “normal”. If you break this rule because of a very low budget, only break it with a local manufacturer or sleep shop like those in #3 who can tell you the exact quality and specs of the polyfoam they use (and why), use it in more appropriate layer thicknesses or designs, and will tell you truthfully how long you can reasonably expect it to last.

5. Never let a ‘major sale’ create a sense of urgency

Quality mattresses with great value are available year round at better retailers and manufacturers and the so-called “sale prices” that are offered by most of the mainstream stores and major brands (and even some of the smaller ones) are often a complete gimmick. Sale prices of 30, 40, 50% or more off are a major warning sign (and never really end) since nobody ever buys these mattresses at regular prices anyway. These fake sale prices are meant to encourage you to buy based on a false perception of value or based on a sense of urgency when in fact they are often still very much overpriced based on the materials in the mattress. While even good stores or manufacturers will occasionally have a sale … they will be discounted from selling prices that already have good value and be for a smaller discount and for a legitimate reason.

6. Test for pressure relief and spinal alignment

When you are mattress testing … test for the two main functions of a mattress pressure relief, spinal alignment using the testing guidelines linked in the tutorial post here. Never test for the “overall comfort” of a mattress or put any faith in words like “supportive”, “comfortable” “firm”, “soft” and many other general or relative terms. Comfort is subjective and mostly about pressure relief in the top layers and support is mostly about how the lower layers keep your spine in alignment. Both are different for everyone and all mattresses need different degrees of firmness and softness in different layers to fit your body profile, sleeping positions, and preferences.

7. Decide on the midpoint of your budget

Decide on the midpoint of your budget (the price you want to stay under with everything included but could go a little over for your absolutely perfect mattress) but then test mattresses in any price range for “PPP” (Pressure relief, Posture, and Preferences) to find the general layering, materials, and feel that work best for you. Once you know the general layering and style of mattresses that tend to work well for your weight, body profile, and sleeping positions (thickness and softness of the comfort layers and firmness and makeup of the support layers), you can use this knowledge as a guideline to find an appropriate mattress in any budget range. Lower budget mattresses that use lower cost and less durable materials can provide very good sleeping comfort, particularly if you use higher quality materials on top. The tradeoff is that they won’t do it quite as well or for as long as higher quality materials that will keep their original qualities for much longer.

8. Don’t get involved with all the intricacies of mattress innersprings and coil counting

Don’t get involved with all the intricacies of mattress innersprings and coil counting if you are considering an innerspring mattress. Most of what you will hear is not much more than a story designed to impress you so you will buy the mattress they are trying to sell. A mattress is not about coil counts … it’s about pressure relief and correct alignment and your “lie on bed” testing will tell you about both. The weak link of almost every mattress is in the layers used above the innerspring (or a foam core) … not the innersprings themselves. For those that are interested there is more about the different types of innersprings in this article.

9. Never buy a mattress on the same day you do mattress testing

Never buy a mattress on the same day you do mattress testing unless you are certain that you have found your perfect mattress at the best value available in the city where you live. Many mattress stores have very refined sales techniques which are designed to discourage meaningful comparisons based on materials and encourage you to make decisions based on stories and sales techniques.

10. Know that what you end up buying is what you want

Know that what you end up buying is what you want. Don’t let warranties or comfort exchanges be a major or primary consideration in your final decision as these too are mostly gimmicks and used as sales techniques that are designed to keep your money in the store and have many exclusions, qualifications, restrictions, and fees involved. Buy a mattress as if you only have one chance to buy your best choice and don’t rely on any exchange or return policy unless it is a complete no questions asked refund with few if any qualifications or fees involved.

Avoiding pitfalls and traps while mattress shopping.

In practical terms … you will be looking at a comfort layer which is either polyfoam, memory foam (if you know for certain that you sleep well on memory foam) or latex (which is a higher quality and more durable material). Polyfoam (more than 1") as mentioned in #4 should be a last resort unless you know for certain it is a higher grade of polyfoam and your budget calls for it. If you wish to consider other nonfoam options in your comfort layers … you can read about mattress comfort layers here.

Also in practical terms … you will usually be looking at a support core made of an innerspring, latex, or high-quality polyfoam (high-quality polyfoam is OK in the support layers of a “hybrid” mattress because it’s denser and firmer and not subject to the same wear and tear as the comfort layers). You can read about the various support core options here.

These guidelines should help you avoid the biggest pitfalls and traps in buying a mattress. None of these guidelines are “absolute” of course but it is much better to stick to them than to try to find the rare exceptions where they may not apply.

Of course if you have any questions along the way … feel free to post them in our forums.

I have read your postings, and although I find them enlightening, I find nothing to help me to decide what to buy. I was considering the icomfort revolution by Serta, but since i have no idea about the materials used, I am more confused than ever. i need a new matress and foundation, I have lumbar and cervical spine issues and need good support. I cannot afford the Tempurpedic products, I am reluctant to buy the adjustable air filled matress, so i was looking for a recommendation. The Serta Revolution felt good in the store, the genius felt too firm, and I don’t care for innerspring matresses. So what’s one to do? No one seems to publish enough information to make a true comparison, so I guess I am looking for some sort of product endorsement or recommendation as to which of the various foam brands you would recommend; hope you can help. thnks

Hi Harvey S,

The most important goal of the information on this site is to help point people in the direction of the best materials, sources, and value for their particular circumstances, needs, and preferences, and to help people sort through all the misleading information that they will come across in their search. Perhaps most important of all is to help them find outlets that will educate them rather than effectively make their decisions for them through misleading information or by using various sales techniques.

When you are first starting to look, it is important IMO to gather some basic information about the most common materials that are used in mattresses so you can lay on mattresses and know what you are lying on and relate the information on this site to actual experience. If you only test mattresses based on overall comfort (which can come from any material) then you will have no idea about how long this “comfort” will last or the real value of any mattress you are looking at. You may also discover that “comfort” in a store is not the same as long term comfort in real life.

If nothing else … you need to know the general differences between memory foam, latex, and polyfoam since almost every mattress you lay on will have one or more of these in the comfort layers. Knowing the general differences between support cores using innersprings, latex, and polyfoam are also important since almost all mattresses will use one of these in the support layers. These three “comfort materials” in combination with these three “support materials” represent the general makeup of almost every mattress you will encounter.

The next most important step and even more important than knowing specifically what to buy at first (which can only really be determined by lying on mattresses), is a process which will help you make the best decisions and to have a sense of where to find manufacturers and outlets which are the most knowledgeable and transparent, and which will use their knowledge to help you find a mattress which is the most suitable for you rather than “steering” you towards a mattress which is best for them.

With an outlet like this … you can ask questions, learn about different materials and mattresses, and get real answers that relate to your actual experience in an unhurried and unpressured environment and free from any sense that it is somehow better to buy “today” for some artificial reason (like the current “sale”) instead of “stories” which are used to sell mattresses throughout a large part of the industry.

When you have found an outlet like this which has real value and gives you truthful and accurate information … then any lack of knowledge you may have won’t be used to subtly influence you into making choices that don’t serve your best interests or give you the best value. The better outlets WANT you to compare different mattresses and will help you with better ways to do so. The worse outlets DISCOURAGE you from making meaningful comparisons and do whatever they can to make this difficult. The better outlets WANT you to be educated. The worse outlets replace education with opinions that have little in the way of fact behind them.

So a product “endorsement” would only steer people into someone else’s idea of what is best for you when you and your needs and circumstances are unique. Brands will also tell you little to nothing about what is in a mattress or how suitable any mattress will be for you.

If you were buying a car … would you rather have a mechanic help you that knew all the details of what is in a car and also knew how to fit a car to your own needs and preferences or would you rather have the help of a person who only wanted you to buy what they personally liked or what would make them the best commission.

Knowing the sources of the best service, quality, and value … and having someone who knows their stuff (like the people who make high quality mattresses or who are taught by people who make high quality mattresses) is more important than having anyone with different needs or priorities than your own influence or even sometimes make your decisions for you.

So I never recommend specific brands for anyone else … although I certainly am happy giving guidelines which will lead them to better quality materials and information, better value, and most important better choices. I am also happy to share my own preferences as long as it is clear that my preferences and the reasons behind them may not apply to anyone else.

There are many high quality and value manufacturers who publish or provide information which makes meaningful comparisons much easier. Recognizing what sets them apart and finding them above the “noise” of all the marketing hype and branding information is a big part of why this site is here.

If you let me know the city where you live … I’d be happy to help you find any better outlets near you that I may know about.


I live in Ottawa, On and I’m looking for a new bed and I have no idea what to get. I have had a bad back for going on for over two years now. Mostly in my upper back in my scapula and neck. I have been sleeping on my floor with a memory foam topper for the last year or so. It has not helped my back out at all but when I tried going back to my soft bed it just made my back worse. I’m getting tired of sleeping on the floor and looking to invest in a new bed but I don’t want go out and spend a bunch of money just to end up sleeping on the floor again. I’ve tried a few mattresses out in the stores but it’s really hard for me to say without waking up on one and seeing if my back is worse off than it was before I went to bed. I’m looking to spend about $1,000 and any suggestion would be much appreciated. Thanks…

Sent in two requests for help on defective Simmons and what to exchange it for. Tried latex Prana w 2" top layer and poly core (bottom of line for $1100- which means I have to add $$$ for transaction. Pls refer to my other comments. Can u advise where else in So Fla to look at comparatives?

Hi Stephen C,

I replied to your other post with similar content here :slight_smile:

Hi myrna,

I replied to your other post about City Mattress in post #2 here. If you are referring here to the Lotus Asana in twin size, then IMO it would be one of their more reasonable choices and closer to what I would consider acceptable value even though this type of mattress (2" of latex over polyfoam) in twin size would likely be less at a factory direct outlet.

If you let me know the city in South Florida that is closest to you or your zip code I’d be happy to take a look and let you know of any factory direct or better retail outlets I know about within reasonable driving distance.