Thursday, October 9, 2014

Mattress mysteries baffle NY Times

(This post is off topic, and kind of cranky, too. Feel free to skip it.)

I admit it – I’m a consumer journalism junkie. When I got Consumer Reports’ print edition, I read reviews of things I will never, ever own: wine chillers, leaf blowers, Cadillacs, backpacks. I like knowing how things are supposed to work, even if they’re not things I want.

So if the New York Times promises to help me shop for "the best mattress," I’m expecting to learn a little something I didn't already know. But no: Apparently the subject of today’s Home section lead was so soporific that the assigning editor, the writer, and the copy editor all fell asleep on the job.

The assigning editor accepted the piece; enough said. As for the author, given his innocence about mattresses, I’m wondering if he’s still in the bed Mom and Dad bought him. Buying is confusing, he tells us, because “most major brand names inexplicably seem to begin with the letter 's'." And then there are all those hard words! “Viscoelastic foam,” “pocketed coil technology,” and worst of all, "Talalay latex? C’mon, mattress people. Now it sounds as if you’re just making stuff up." (Gee, if only there were an easy way to look up those obscure terms, so you could explain them to readers.*)

There follow many paragraphs of filler -- quotes from mattress people, descriptions of various products -- before the payoff, delivered by a Consumer Reports mattress writer: Most of the tech and the specs don’t matter at all. The $5,000 Dux mattress did about as well in CU’s tests as the $540 Original Mattress Factory product. In other words, ignore the article, read Consumer Reports, and buy a mattress that feels good.

By this point the copy editor was dozing, so we are told that Hastens, a high-end seller, uses "horsehair that is sterilized for up to a year before going into the mattress." Up to a year? What's the minimum time, and how do you do it? And why raise these questions when "sterilized horsehair" would suffice? (A related sign of sleepiness all round pops up in a sidebar: "Mattress prices can be reduced by as much as 50 percent and more.")

Meanwhile, the story ignores the main reason frustrated consumers can't just go out buy a mattress like their last one. For years now, the big mattress makers have offered only one-sided mattresses -- the underside is not a sleep surface. No more flipping the mattress for extra wear; you couldn’t flip it anyway, because it’s thicker and heavier -- 12 or 15 inches deep instead of 8 or 9. Also, it requires new, deeper fitted sheets; they’re flabbily sized, for mattresses up to 15 or 20 inches, so they don’t fit any very well, but at least you’re stimulating the economy.

Now, finally, this fad is waning, and in my book, that’s the big news. After years of waiting, I recently found (and bought) a flippable mattress (though fitted sheets remain a problem).

Commenters on the NYT piece have echoed, and expanded on, my complaints. Why nothing on these heavy, non-flippable mattresses? Why no mention of Ikea’s (normal-thickness, inexpensive) mattresses? What about futons, local manufacturers, flameproofing chemicals, offgassing foam? The comments, in fact, are probably more useful than the article itself.

And best of all, in the mattress quest category, is Donald Antrim’s 2002 New Yorker piece, "I Bought a Bed."  As someone who once tried out a Dux bed at a local inn -- and ended up sleeping on the floor -- I was the bullseye of his target audience. But even if you're not, it will put your bed-shopping troubles -- and the Times's, too -- into perspective.

*Talalay is the name of the guys who invented one particular latex-foaming process.


Bryan White said...

No problems with going "off topic." I like a good rant. It's very human.

Anonymous said...

I got a new mattress just the other day as it happens. It would certainly not have occurred to me to ask the New York Times for advice; the in-store service was quite adequate.

No problem with fitted sheets so far. Lack of flippability is a concern but I thought maybe the one side lasts twice as long to make up for it.