Rest easy Home: Mattress manufacturers find consumers are willing to buy bedding that promises fabulous comfort at premium prices.

September 21, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

A 50-year-old back is different from a 25-year-old back. But does it need a $3,000 mattress to get a comfortable night's sleep?

Manufacturers have discovered that aging baby boomers are willing to spend lavishly for ultra-premium mattresses, the kind of bedding that only the rich and famous owned a few years ago.

Surely it has something to do with the graying of America that when Kingsdown named its newest high-end mattress line "Passions," it wasn't referring to sex. "Our passion is sleep," the ads read. These are mattresses that sell for $2,000 to $5,000, as much as 10 times more than ordinary mattresses.

Recently the territory staked out by Kingsdown, Dux, Heirloom and Shifman -- luxury bedding companies that most of us have never heard of -- has been invaded by industry giants Sealy, Simmons, Spring Air and Serta. Since 1994, all four have come out with ultra-premium lines, ranging in price from $1,000 to $3,000. Stearns & Foster, now a division of Sealy Inc., has focused on the luxury market exclusively for the past three years.

The growth in premium bedding sales probably wouldn't have happened if consumers hadn't been willing to abandon the long-held belief that a mattress has to be hard to be good for your back. The primary selling point for luxury mattresses is fabulous comfort.

"Manufacturers and retailers have managed to convince people that firmer isn't better," says Larry Thomas, who covers bedding for the trade newspaper Furniture Today.

Not surprisingly, there's a chicken-and-egg debate over which came first. Manufacturers say they are responding to customer demand. Doug Kinde at Simmons cites research done in early 1996 by the Better Sleep Council showing that people were willing to make an even greater investment in bedding than manufacturers thought they were.

These are consumers who used to spend $125 on a pair of running shoes they wore a couple of hours a week but only $300 on a mattress they slept on eight hours a night.

Haven at home

Cut to the '90s, when boomers have more disposable income than ever, the home is a haven and, oh, their aching backs. With a huge segment of the population getting older and more health-conscious, suddenly a good night's sleep is worth a premium price. No definitive research has been done to prove that these luxury mattresses will deliver, but it stands to reason. If lying on the mattress feels as if you're sinking into a cloud, and it still gives support, you should wake up feeling good in the morning.

"Of course, after spending all that money you'd better feel

great," says Robert Butterworth, a clinical psychologist. He recently bought an ultra-premium mattress because he found himself at age 50 waking up a lot during the night and feeling sore in the morning. He thinks his $1,800 mattress is helping him get a better night's sleep. "But we can't judge the psychological effect of paying so much. There aren't any studies yet."

Doctors and physical therapists are cautious about getting into the debate over firm mattresses vs. the contouring support of luxury bedding. "The assumptions being made are probably more marketing than science," says Paul Asdourian, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Union Memorial Hospital. "My recommendation is a mattress firm enough to maintain the body in a neutral position. There are no universal guidelines. If a mattress is uncomfortable, it's not good enough."

TC In other words, you may or may not get health benefits. What you do get for your money is comfort and longevity. All innerspring mattresses consist of coiled springs sandwiched between padding. But the more you pay, the higher the coil count, the thicker the padding, the more natural and more luxurious the materials and detailing. High-end mattresses sometimes have a "pillowtop," more layers of softness sewn on both sides of the mattress. All this can make ultra-premium mattresses up to 15 inches thick -- twice as thick as standard ones, so buyers will also have to invest in new sheets labeled "high contour" or "deep-pocketed." (This was one reason Larry Thomas of Furniture Today decided not to get a luxury model when he bought a new mattress recently; the sheets aren't always easy to find.)

Manufacturers of high-end latex foam mattresses argue that their all-natural -- and very expensive -- material is even more comfortable than innerspring mattresses because of what Jonathan May, president of Latex International, calls its "conformability" to the sleeper's body. He cites studies showing that people sleeping on latex foam toss and turn 10 to 12 times a night rather than the standard 100 to 200 times.

Long-term reward

As for longevity, the bedding industry recommends replacing your mattress every 10 years or so, but luxury models can last three times as long as that, says Matthew Amoroso, a store manager for the Sleepy's mattress chain. The $7,000 Duxiana he carries comes with a 25-year guarantee. Admittedly, the Swedish company Dux is at the high end of the high end.

Manufacturers don't talk much about one thing consumers are buying when they invest in high-end bedding: pure luxury for the sake of luxury. Think of it as inconspicuous consumption, as opposed to the conspicuous consumption of the '80s. Premium bedding features natural materials like cashmere and silk beneath the quilting. A Stearns & Foster mattress is covered in imported Belgian damasks. It sports brass air vents and brass corner guards.

Under the quilting, a handcrafted Heirloom mattress has pure silk on the top and pure wool on the bottom, so you can turn it over with the change of seasons.

But all this detailing is meaningless if it's not the mattress for you. Jim Ruehlmann, vice president of marketing at Sealy, has some final advice for consumers:

"Buy the best mattress you can afford, making sure it's comfortable. It's no use lying awake worrying about how you are going to pay for it."

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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