Prologue - In November 2012, Onno Petersen, the founder of The Mattress Underground (TMU), responded to a consumer post with a free-flowing 1400+ word discourse that started with “One of the reasons I started The Mattress Underground…” Of course, there is more than one reason why Onno started The Mattress Underground, and the post he penned shows us that in several ways. As a tribute to our founder and chief iconoclast Onno, we have re-created the post in its entirety and without edit, so you can better understand the man, and his passion for integrity, one of the core values in life that continues to evade a large portion of the US mattress industry. Please enjoy and feel free to comment…
One of the reasons I started this site was because my own research quickly showed me how difficult it was to find a way to measure quality and value in any meaningful way and how in the mainstream industry, the quality of materials and construction was secondary and constantly being eroded or incrementally traded away for the sake of increased profit margins all along the supply chain. This is often in response to the demands of investment groups and shareholders at every step for ever-increasing levels of profit from leveraged buyouts and to pay for advertising budgets and marketing and for “influence”. In most cases … the product that is being sold by major manufacturers (and many smaller ones as well) to their primary customers (the larger mass-market outlets) is not mattresses at all but profit margins. This is also true of foam and component suppliers whose major customers are the larger mattress manufacturers. In both instances … mattresses are just a means to an end.
The major manufacturers are accountable to their primary customer base which is mostly corporate chain stores or big box stores and much less accountable to actual customers that buy a mattress. The effect of reputation is often secondary to marketing in the eyes (and buying habits) of consumers and they are well aware of this and cultivate it. They know that a few years after a mattress purchase “all will be forgotten” and that in most cases the glitz of “new” mattress lines will overwhelm any dissatisfaction that consumers may have with their old ones and once again their new mattress purchase will “follow the advertising”. They also do whatever they can to limit the distribution and exposure of their smaller competitors through pressuring their retailers to provide more floor space and focus more on selling their mattresses (often using various forms of kickbacks or spiff) and less on the smaller manufacturers. They also do everything they can to make meaningful comparisons between mattresses impossible and often sell their own mattresses under different names in different stores to make comparisons more difficult and make it easier for a retailer to claim “our mattresses are not the same and are better than the ones down the street”.
Where they don’t have multiple model names that make comparison shopping impossible, they will often use controlled pricing under the threat of removing the right of a retailer to sell their mattresses if they sell for less than they are “allowed” to. There is also a great deal of “collusion” inside the industry among the “old boys network” about how they will “split” their market. Of course, most smaller retailers give in to this if their livelihood depends on “brand names” and “marketing stories” which is how they were trained and train their employees to sell mattresses. The lure of the high-profit margins that are available by selling lower quality mattresses at higher prices can be very attractive and mattresses are among the highest profit margin items of furniture that are sold. Consumers end up paying the price in more ways than just what they pay for a mattress.
Marketing stories have become so effective in this consumer marketplace that it overwhelms any real quality considerations … especially in an industry that has little interest in providing any real information about how to even know what quality really means. How many people for example even know that the quality of polyfoam is primarily measured in foam density or if they did would know which density is good quality and which isn’t? I would guess less than 1% (and that’s probably being generous). In this environment, stories that use inflated claims have replaced genuine information as the basis of most buying decisions. In most cases, it’s the sizzle that’s being sold instead of the steak. It also doesn’t help that most mattress information sites either have a vested interest (often hidden) in selling a specific mattress, are mostly about google rankings to increase advertising profit, have little knowledge of mattresses and materials and just repeat more “generic” information that is repeated everywhere else, or are so concerned with “stepping on toes” that what they say is so watered down that it has little meaning anymore. In the mainstream industry … marketing stories have replaced real information and every year or two a new “story” has replaced the old one. As an example … the current “new” story is all about gel foams and all the stories that are connected to them.
I think too that one of the biggest problems is that even consumers that have learned how to look for quality can have a very difficult time because the industry as a whole doesn’t provide enough information about the mattresses they sell to make quality information easy to find. They will often buy out of frustration and fatigue because these problems are so endemic in the industry and there is a mattress store on every corner that sells in the same way. How do you find the gems that are different when everything can seem the same? If you ask the majority of retailers about what is really in their mattresses they will often look at you with eyes rolling or as if you are crazy to expect them to know the answers to the questions you are asking.
The top 15 manufacturers currently control about 86% of the industry and the hundreds of others share the remaining 14% (the updated figures are here and it’s still increasing). The top 5 control about 3/4 of this. Some of these major players even share common ownership (such as Tempurpedic who just bought Sealy and the common ownership of Simmons and Serta). In addition to this … most retailers themselves don’t understand the concept of quality materials and are dependent on selling mainstream mattresses because these are the names that consumers know about and this is how their suppliers have trained them to sell their mattresses. They have convinced many consumers that “off brands” (meaning smaller manufacturers that don’t advertise as much, sell more through local referrals and word of mouth, and that aren’t as well known) somehow make inferior mattresses. In some cases, this is even true because some smaller manufacturers are more opportunistic and do make poor quality/value mattresses as well and also “sell the story”. In some cases, their story is even that they sell “factory direct” which may be true in terms of fact but the benefits of their factory direct business model may not be evident as they also use lower quality materials and sell for higher prices than most “legitimate” factory direct manufacturers that are what I call “mattress people” instead of “money machines” or “money machine wannabes”.
It always a great surprise for me to find a smaller factory direct manufacturer who is still focused on making quality mattresses with great value and an even bigger surprise to find retailers who understand the importance of providing meaningful information about their mattresses although the number of these is slowly growing. Some “more courageous” retailers will even go as far as only selling mattresses made by manufacturers that provide this information. They make manufacturers “compete” for their floor space based on the real quality and value of the mattresses they make. They do their homework and do meaningful research on what they sell but these are much fewer and far between and they certainly go “against the grain” of their industry. Their integrity doesn’t let them do anything else but they can have a more difficult time succeeding in the environment of the industry today.
So I’m looking forward to your questions … and it’s great to have one more “educated consumer” that will be asking better questions and helping to “educate” the retailers about what quality and value really mean. While one site run by one person is only a drop in the bucket … step by step as consumers learn to ask different questions and become more knowledgeable and “vote with their wallet” … I believe the industry can slowly change for the better.
In a lighter vein ( see the “story” of our origins here )… perhaps The Mattress Underground (in the larger group sense) really can prevent the “alien takeover” of spineless beings who make poor quality mattresses and help a sick and tired humanity reach its goal of finding “peaceful sleep and fully functional wakefulness”.
Thanks for your comments and for “inspiring” this post and I’m looking forward to your questions along the way
In another forum where I was very active … someone not long ago asked me how I knew so much. I posted this reply on Christmas Eve of 2010. Little did I know at the time that it would turn into what you see now. I hope you enjoy the “alternative version” of why I started “The Mattress Underground” as much as I enjoyed writing it …
“Phoenix - how do you know so much? Did you work for a mattress manufacturer??? What makes you an expert?”
I guess it’s time that I should fully disclose my background
I used to be part of the Illuminati. There has been a conspiracy originating from the days of straw mattresses that is part of a multi-layered plan to subjugate humanity. There are gelatinous creatures from another galaxy involved. Part of the plan is to make the human race sick and tired by convincing them to sleep on mattresses that don’t work. People who are sick and tired can’t fight back.
There are many people who are well aware of this plan who either work for “S” companies or who run websites masquerading as mattress experts. Most of them are hybrids that look somewhat human but really aren’t. Many of these have no backbone so they really don’t care what they or anyone else sleep on. They have been promised positions of great power and wealth in the new world that will follow if they will help convince the human race to sleep on mattresses that are no good for them.
I used to be one of these hybrids. From my earliest days, I was taught the intricacies of mattress construction so that one day I could help make mattresses that would contribute to the master plan. I was proud of my heritage and my spineless nature and took to my destiny with enthusiasm and dedication. The parental genetic material from which I was developed was very proud of me.
Then one day, when I was in my early 20’s, I started to notice some changes in my body. Something hard and thin was growing inside me and kept getting longer and longer. It began to affect my life in many ways including how I slept. When I could no longer deny that I had a problem or keep it hidden, I went back to the lab where I was born and was told that I was growing a backbone. Apparently, the genetic material from which I was developed had a retrograde mutation and I was reverting back to becoming human.
At first, I was devastated as it was clear that I was a misfit and as my condition became worse and worse (and more and more noticeable) I also became the subject of jokes and derision from my peers. In my shame, I ran away and hid and slept on whatever I could find in the forest and the fields where I was hiding. Much to my surprise, these natural materials were more comfortable to me than anything I had grown up with.
As I slowly became more fully human, I met others who were more like me and ended up falling in love with a beautiful soul who was the most perfect combination of softness and firmness that I had ever laid my eyes (or my body) on. She was also the most supportive being I had ever known. Her name was “Latex”. As we got to know each other better, she shared with me that she was part of the “mattress underground” which was a human organization dedicated to making mattresses that would help reverse the effects of sleeping on “S” mattresses and revitalize a sick and tired humanity. We were soon married and with my knowledge from my upbringing and her desire to resist the impending doom that was facing humanity, we decided to work together and help people find mattresses that would give them a chance of survival against the coming onslaught.
The rest, as they say, is his(and her)story. Our efforts, along with those of many others like us, are just part of a growing counterinsurgency that we hope will one day restore humanity to peaceful sleep and fully functional wakefulness and in doing so, give all of us a chance to fulfill our true destiny.
Phoenix and Latex