Sun Ra - Column for 2/10

Lie Down with Lyin'

A recent Cant column mentioned (among other things) the deception that places such as Circuit City use to encourage people to buy their merchandise. That deception being the "price match" guarantee, whereby if you find the same item at a lower price anywhere else within a given period of time, Circuit City will refund the difference. And the trick is, you can't find the same item, because only Circuit City carries that exact product. Products that are in all ways the same, but have a different product name, for instance, don't count.

It's a sharp practice that I had been unaware of, but which immediately set off my arduously-acquired Business School (1) instincts as being a great idea. And, of course, being totally unsurprising to find in practice. Customers exist to be screwed out of their money, after all.

Anywhoo, in the interest of standing up for you as a consumer (for which my Business School colleagues would mock me), I wanted to warn you about another venue for a similar sharp practice: Beds.

Executive Summary:
A) Do Not pay full list price for a bed.
B) You cannot find the same model at different stores. Do not try. Do not even worry about the model. Shop around on brand name, size, and features. Make your own metrics.

First, price. The mattress industry is a remnant of a bygone era, when no price was ever final. It's not the dry goods store - it's the bazaar, the souk. Be prepared to denigrate the product you actually want, and to fake walking away. If you pay list price for a mattress, in any store, you might as well paint "sucker" on your forehead. Note, of course, that most folks - being ignorant - do pay sticker price. Don't. You can haggle. You should haggle.

When I purchased my present mattress (2), which I have been highly satisfied with, the list price was nine hundred dollars. Now, I can't haggle for shit. I suck at negotiation. But I knew that I needn't pay nine hundred dollars. So I offered six.

The salesman laughed, told me I was on drugs, and offered me eight-fifty.

That's fifty bucks! Just for acting like I was on drugs!

Eventually, as you may expect, we settled on eight hundred. Sure, a better bargainer would have gotten it for seven twenty-five. But I saved a hundred dollars - two large sushi dinners - just for being willing to haggle. Do not pay list price.

As an aside, the salesman who sold me the mattress was the most bombed-looking human being I have ever seen in person. His eyes weren't just bloodshot, they'd been gunned down in an alley and knifed several times for good measure. The whites were that in name only - in practice, he had weary-looking blue irises in a sea of different shades of red. Although perfectly articulate, one could tell from his manner that he was propped up solely by caffeine or perhaps cocaine, after what must have been a night of Caligula-like proportions.

Nice guy, though. Good salesman. But wrecked like no one I have seen before or since, and he was at work.

Okay, so now you know better than to pay list. Second - when shopping around, don't bother with the mattress label. The brand name is important, as is the product line, but the specific label is totally irrelevant.

This is because the industry has evolved in such a way as to foil price comparison. In order to secure the most retail space, the manufacturers need to suck up to the retailers. And one of the ways they have done this is to prevent price comparison, by not selling the same label to any two stores in the same area. Each manufacturer produces hundreds and hundreds of labels, often placed on the same mattress, so that you cannot find a Serta Perfect Sleeper labelled "Comfort" at more than one store within one hundred miles.

It's a tiered naming system. You have the brand name (Serta). You have the product line (Perfect Sleeper). And then you have the label (dozens of different ones), which means almost nothing, but keeps you, the consumer, from comparing mattress prices across retail outlets.

Take a look at their websites. The Serta site lists their Perfect Sleeper line of mattresses, and even breaks it down into three categories - but lists no specific label names. Or prices. It's the same if you look for a Simmons Beautyrest. In stores, there are many different types of Beautyrest, each with a name. On the website, you can only find the three tiers, and no price information at all.

I find the Sealy site of particular interest. If you look in their product catalogue, you'll find that their main product line is the Posturepedic - which of course you knew from the television advertisements.

But here the curtain is pulled back a little. Look at what else they mention - product lines within the Posturepedic family, including 'Crown Jewel' and 'Palatial Crest'. Which aren't labels, they are just sub-product lines. Because look at the price ranges for them. The Crown Jewel line range from $999-$2499! A little bit of variability, there, huh?

Frankly, I'm surprised they mentioned a price at all. That's in the hands of the retailers - hence the haggling, hence the profusion of labels. The power in the mattress market belongs to the retailers. Which is why Toyota can tell you how much a Corolla will cost, but Sealy can't advertise the price of a Posturepedic. They can't even tell you what label you'll be looking at. All they can tell you about is the quality of the product.

So that's what you need to base your comparison on. Shop around - make a little chart, and write down size, brand, and list price. Not that you're going to pay that. And then write down your comments. Assign each mattress you try - and I recommend lying on at least fifty or sixty - a softness number. Rate it one to ten. Trust me, your back won't change that much, unless your shopping extends over years. This way, when you go to make a decision, you have something to assist your memory. You can't compare two different Simmons "Goodnight" mattresses, since only one store carries them, but you can compare a Simmons queen Beautyrest "Goodnight" with a softness of 6 and a Simmons queen Beautyrest "Sleepwell" with a softness of 6. And they are probably the same bed. If the "Sleepwell" is listed at $699, and the "Goodnight" at $799, and they were the same to you, then you've discovered which store has the higher markup.

In short, just remember that buying a mattress is not like buying a DVD. It's like buying a camel. They've made sure every one is different, so what you have to do is create your own basis for comparison. Take notes. Haggle.

And then sleep well.

- Sun Ra

1) I have an M.B.A. Graduated in the top of my class from UCLA. And, so far, it's done me no damn good at all.
2) A Serta Perfect Sleeper. California King size, with pillow top. Useless model name: "Comfort".

Columns by Sun Ra