There are really two approaches to buying a mattress … each with it’s own advantages and disadvantages.
The first approach is to become an expert in all the different materials and methods of mattress construction that are part of every mattress. This involves knowing the differences between different materials, the variations in each different material, and how to determine the different quality levels of each material (for example the difference between “cheap” 3 lb memory foam and denser 5 lb memory foam which is more durable and performs very differently). It also involves a process which in most cases is more like pulling teeth (at least for chain stores and major brands) which is finding out the information that you need to determine quality and durability. In most cases … mainstream outlets and brands don’t even know this information and in many cases they refuse to disclose it so that comparison shopping is impossible. An hour on this site reading the overviews in the mattresses section will generally make you more of an “expert” than the vast majority of the people who sell mattresses. I highly recommend avoiding this approach and the guidelines here will help you avoid most of the more common choices that end up leading to the purchase of a poor quality and value mattresses.
The second approach is to first find the better outlets in your area that either make or sell higher quality and value mattresses and that are what I call “mattress people”. these are people who already know what you otherwise would need to learn and who are committed to helping you find the most suitable mattress that fits your needs and preferences in your budget and will educate you about how to make better choices rather than “sell” you a mattress that benefits them more than it provides you wih long term satisfaction. These types of outlets are generally either factory direct outlets that make their own mattresses and sell them directly to the public or smaller local sleep shops that sell smaller independent or locally manufactured brands. This article will help you recognize these types of outlets.
I normally suggest enough research to ask better questions and that will help you know when people are giving you factual information or are just selling you marketing stories that have little to do with real quality and value. A mattress is only as good as the materials inside it and the construction methods that are used to make it.
A third option for those who don’t have good quality/value outlets in their area (and surprisingly there are many areas of the country that are dominated by chain stores and have few if any outlets where I would buy a single mattress that they sell) is an online purchase. This involves doing some local testing to know the materials that you prefer and then working with a knowledgeable mattress manufacturer that is skilled at helping you make good choices over the phone based on your local testing and on the type of information (like height/weight/sleeping positions/preferences) that will affect which of the mattresses they make would be your best choice. Many of these also provide the ability to re-arrange the layers of the mattress or to make layer exchanges at a nominal cost if your choices aren’t what you were hoping for. These types of outlets make the purchase of a high quality and value mattress available to those in areas of the country where there is little to no good quality and value mattresses available locally.
Some examples of the misinformation or partly accurate information you will encounter include …
While there are many who love memory foam mattresses … they can also be a very risky purchase and they involve finding out the details of the type and density of the memory foam that is used. Memory foam is only one of many options that are used in the comfort layers of a mattress and to say that this is the “future” of the industry is just an opinion that is “mostly” inaccurate. I would guess that over 60% of the local mattress manufacturers in this country who could make any types of mattresses they want to (and buy the same mateials that are used in mainstream mattresses and sell them at a better value) either won’t make a memory foam mattress or “sell against” it meaning they carry it so people can try it but srtongly recommend other less “risky” or better performing materials. These are people with in many cases generations of experience and knowledge behind them.
For those that are committed to memory foam … there are hundreds of different types of memory foam and layering combinations that can either make a specific mattress more suitable for a particular individual or that have a wide range of different properties (such as density/durability, breathability and temperature regulation, response speed, temperature sensitivity, layer thickness, toxicity and offgassing, and the ratio of viscosity to elasticity). All of these will have a significant effect on how a mattress performs and feels. While none of them means that memory foam is a “bad” choice by itself … there is much more to what makes a mattress suitable for each person than just whether or not it contains some type of memory foam. There is more about many of the differences in memory foam in post #9 here.
This is another common belief that is also used more as a marketing tool which is a major trap for mattress shoppers. A mattress warranty has nothing to do with how long a mattress will last. The most common reason a mattress becomes unsuitable for sleeping is foam softening (most common with low density memory foam and polyurethane foam) and this is not covered by any warranty. Even the final stages of foam breakdown when it begins to develop impressions (after it has significantly softened already) are not covered unless the actual impression is more than the warranty exclusion which can vary but is typically from .75" to over 2" (measured without any weight on the mattress and after the foam has had a chance to weakly recover it’s height). There are many other warranty exclusions including even a tiny stain on a mattress that will invalidate any warranty coverage.
Warranties are only for “defects” in manufacturing and the most common reasons that people need to replace a mattress are not considered to be manufacturing defects at all but the “normal” wearing out of materials which is not covered by a warranty. Manufacturing defects will usually show up early in the life of a mattress and warranties are used as marketing tools more than they are a protection against the premature failure of a mattress. Only knowing the details of every layer of a mattress and knowing the “weak link” of a particlar mattress can give you meaningful information about the durability of a mattress. Buying a mattress based on the warranty (rather than knowing the details of the materials that are in it) is one of the biggest mistakes consumers make.
Like all the major brands … the Serta iComfort has poor value. It is made to cater to the highly subjective and managed environment of a showroom floor but this has little to do how a mattress will feel and perform in the long term. There is more about many of the iComfort mattresses in post #11 here.
While tempurpedic does mostly use higher quality 4 and 5.3 lb density memory foam (except in their new Simplicity lineup which uses 2.5 lb memory foam which I would not buy at any price) … like all the largest manufacturers they also have poor value when compared to better manufacturers that use similar or better quality materials and that carry significantly lower prices.
Gel foams are the latest “rage” in mattresses but like all new materials … their benefits are somewhat overblown and depend on the type of gel foam they are using (more in post #2 here) and on how they interact with all the other layers of the mattress. There are other foams (like latex) that are “cooler” than gel foams (although gel can make a small difference) and there are also many ways and factors that contributes to how “cool” a particular mattress sleeps for each individual. some of the factors involved in sleeping temperature are in post #2 here.
You can find some better online memory foam outlets in post #12 here but I would personally recommend a local choice when this was possible and there was good value available. I would also not recommend bed in a box which uses 3 lb memory foam in their mattresses (low quality and durability). A forum search will bring up more comments about them.
I personally wouldn’t spend the money. They are the type of outlet that won’t tell you the density of the foams or any meaningful specs about the mattresses they carry and there are many better options.
Costco, Sams Club, and Walmart have a few better quality/value options but again i would avoid all the mainstream brands and because they know little about their mattresses besides the information that is posted (which is often not enough to make good decisions) they are an all or nothing choice that would be based on the knowledge you have. Their biggest advantage is that if you don’t like what you buy you can get a refund so they are low risk. Of course I wouldn’t consider most of their mattresses that contain lower quality materials (which is the majority of the mattresses they sell).
As you can see from some of the information in this post … mattress shopping can become somewhat confusing and this is perhaps the most important comment or question you have asked because it is the first step in finding better outlets and more knowledgeable people that provide better quality and value instead of the first approach I mentioned which is trying to find a mattress first without any knowledgeable help or without having the time or energy, (and avoiding the frustration) that can be involved in doing all the research yourself. Post #2 here and this thread should help.
If you do decide to go in an online direction … post #21 here has a list and some comments about the manufacturing members of this site who specialize in online purchases and are all “expert” in helping you make good choices that are suitable for your needs and preferences.
Hope this helps