Don’t lose sleep buying the perfect mattress

Most people buy a mattress every 10 to 15 years, so it’s a decision you have to live with for a long time. But shopping for a mattress and trying to get the best deal can be maddening. Several major mattress manufacturers and retailers offer different models at different price points, so trying to comparison shop one store to another is just about impossible.

Mattress retailers often tout their “beat our price” guarantee, but it’s an offer they can easily fulfill. When you try to compare one model at one store with one at a competitor’s, the salesperson will more than likely tell you they don’t carry that particular mattress and will try to sell you a “comparable” one. This experience becomes so mind-numbing that most consumers get tired of wheeling and dealing, give up and just buy a mattress.

My advice is to offer the retailer a couple of hundred dollars less than the one on the price tag.  Yes, that’s hundreds. Negotiate from there. Buying a mattress is almost as bad as buying a car — or even worse. There’s no blue book for used mattresses or Internet listing for new ones to help you determine the fair price. So you have to threaten to walk out, shop around or buy online. Most of the time, they will want to make the sale, so they won’t let you walk out the door without making you a counteroffer.

Choosing the right mattress

Even before you start haggling over prices, you have to decide which mattress is right for you. The difference in an $800 dollar mattress and a $2,000 one may not be that great, but salespeople will inundate you with “facts” about foam, coil count, and the quality of the mattress ticking. (Who looks at your ticking anyway?) The best way to decide on a bed for you — and your partner — is to test mattresses. Lie on your side, lie on your belly, and lie down next to your partner to find out what feels comfortable.

And you have to make sure it’s roomy enough. The average sleeper turns 40 to 60 times during the night, so finding the right size mattress is imperative. If you constantly turn, and you have a spacious bedroom, a king-size mattress will give you more room as well as some extra length, if height is an issue. Make sure to try out plenty of mattresses. And go back and try them again. When you’re mattress shopping, make sure you wear comfortable clothes, and leave your inhibitions at home.

So what makes one mattress worth hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars more than another? Sometimes it’s nothing at all. A different name and a different color ticking may affect the price.  But sometimes the more expensive mattress’s coil count or configuration is more complex than cheaper models. But beware: Salespeople will push the coil and foam count.  They will show you some cut outs of the mattress and try to explain its composition. You will doze and forget everything they said by the time you get to the next mattress.  Go by the feel. If the mattress feels good to you, then that is the right mattress for you. When we shopped for mattresses for “Today,” we liked almost all of them. Price didn’t seem to make a difference.

Types of mattresses

When it comes to support, most people believe the firmer the mattress the better. But firm may not be better for you. Besides, mattress makes and models vary so much that a label like “firm” or “plush” may mean nothing. Again, you have to test out the mattress and see how it feels.

Some mattresses called “pillow tops” claim to be softer than most. Layers of foam or cotton are added on the top of the mattress to make it more cushy. Of course, you could save lots of money by purchasing an inexpensive egg crate pad and covering it with a down mattress cover or feather bed to get a similar effect.

Final price

Once you’ve settled on a mattress and a price, make sure to ask about the frame and box spring. (It’d be a shame to put your brand-new mattress on the floor.) Also check to see if the maker or retailer charges for delivery and if they will remove your old mattress and box spring.  If they’ll charge for a box spring and frame, you may be able to get away with using your old ones. Make sure the total price includes all of these items, so you won’t be surprised later.

Finally, ask what their “comfort back guarantee” really means. If they promise to exchange a mattress for you if you are not happy with the one you purchased, make sure to get the details of that guarantee. Trust me; it ain’t easy to get an “even” exchange if you are not satisfied.  I tried and ended up paying hundreds of dollars in extra charges. Still confused?  I am not surprised. It’s a tough industry to crack and a tough one to shop. Good luck!

Janice Lieberman’s Bottom Line: Offer the retailer a couple of hundred dollars less than the one on the price tag. Be prepared to negotiate from there. If the mattress feels good to you, then that is the right mattress for you.

Janice Lieberman is the “Today” show’s consumer correspondent. She joined NBC News as a consumer reporter in 1999. She is author of “Tricks of the Trade: A Consumer Survival Guide.” She is a graduate of Rutgers University.