Consumer Reports mattress report leaves much to be desired

Julie A. Palm
Julie A. Palm, editor in chief
I don’t often write about the contents of other magazines. But the August edition of Consumer Reports, which contains articles about sleep and mattresses, requires comment.

I’m a loyal Consumer Reports subscriber and I frequently turn to it for advice when buying products for my own home.

But I’m troubled by its coverage of sleep and mattresses. The five-page feature starts with a three-page article about how well people sleep based on a survey of 26,451 readers and outlines how widespread sleep problems are—60% of respondents reported having trouble falling or staying asleep or woke up tired at least three times a week. The article then details readers’ sleep problems, as well as the behavioral, environmental and pharmaceutical remedies they have tried and which ones seem to work best. I’m bothered by the fact that there’s no talk of the importance of a quality mattress to a good night’s sleep in those first three pages.

But Consumer Reports does get to the matter of mattresses in the final two pages of the feature. That article focuses on shopping for a mattress and includes ratings of 11 mattress brands and 15 retailers based on a survey of 12,557 people who purchased new mattresses between 2007 and June 2011.

The mattress article starts well, pointing out that 75% of consumers who bought a new mattress “reported that it helped them sleep better.” The magazine also reminds people that the best way to find the right mattress is to lie down on it for at least 10 minutes.

Other good stuff: Among Consumer Reports’ “Five Shopping Strategies” is to avoid buying a renovated mattress by ensuring that the label says it’s made of “all-new material.” The article also cautions consumers against going into a store convinced that firm beds are necessarily the best. “Check out a few types, from plush to firm. Keep in mind that those terms might mean different things across brands,” the magazine advises.

The mattress industry can get behind messages like those.

But there’s disturbing information and advice, as well. For instance, “A new box spring isn’t a must,” the magazine tells readers. “…Roughly 80% of those who kept their old box spring reported that they were sleeping better after replacing just their mattress. So if your box spring isn’t broken and is still structurally sound, consider keeping it and saving several hundred dollars.”

People may be sleeping well despite keeping their old foundation, but buying a new, matching foundation isn’t simply a matter of comfort. Since 2007, the federal open-flame mattress standard has mandated that mattresses undergo the required burn test while matched with the foundations that the manufacturer intends them to be sold with. Consumers who buy a new mattress but keep an old foundation are taking a safety risk.

Then there’s this cringe-inducing guidance: “Haggling helps,” the magazine says, pointing out the generous margins that many retailers make on mattresses. “…Never pay full price.”

I don’t expect Consumer Reports to do a 100% positive story about buying a mattress: We all know improvements can be made to the process. But I wish the magazine had included less of this: “(respondents) gave us an earful on the shopping process, which many manufacturers and retailers make as confusing as possible” and more of this: “most (consumers) were satisfied with their purchases.”