The ABCs of ZZZs: Your Guide to Buying a Mattress Online

Buying Bed Mattress and Sofa, Hand Touching Furniture while Shopping
Liza McCorkle

By Susan Johnston

Anyone who's visited a mattress showroom knows the dizzying variety of options available: plush or firm, memory foam or innerspring, platform bed or box spring. Each store often carries mattresses with different model numbers, so apple-to-apple comparisons can be all but impossible. And, when you tally up the final cost -- including delivery and setup, box spring and bed frame, accessories like a mattress cover and removal of an old mattress -- it can easily stretch into the thousands of dollars. It's more than enough to keep a budget-conscious consumer up at night.

Several online startups and other retailers are working to change the way we shop for mattresses., for instance, sells one type of mattress (starting at $500 for a twin) and offers free shipping to the U.S. and Canada, along with a 100-night trial. If you're unhappy with the mattress during those first 100 nights, Casper will pick up the mattress at your convenience and refund your money. Depending on local regulations, they donate or recycle the unwanted mattresses, according to CEO and co-founder Philip Krim.

Another online retailer, Tuft & Needle, offers a 30-night trial. "Lying on a bed for 30 seconds or a minute doesn't really tell you much about that mattress," Krim says. "You can avoid all that online." Casper has mattress showrooms in New York and Los Angeles, but Krim says most customers buy the mattresses sight unseen. Tuft & Needle has its own showroom in Phoenix.

The Best Fit for You -- or Both of You

Experts urge consumers to rest test their mattress before buying, and unfortunately not all online retailers have this option. "It's not just an investment in your home furnishings, it's an investment in your health," says Mary Helen Uusimaki, vice president of marketing and communications for the Better Sleep Council, the consumer education arm of the International Sleep Products Association.

"We suggest that consumers get down and lie on the bed. Your preferences and your physical needs are different. The mattress that is right for you is not going to be the mattress that's right for me. It's a big investment, and if you get the wrong one, it's not like a pair of pants that are a little tight." Medical professionals agree that mattresses are not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

"There is very little scientific evidence demonstrating that one type of mattress is better than another," says Ilene Rosen, an associate professor of clinical medicine for the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine and a member of the board of directors for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "The best mattress for you is the one that helps you achieve seven to nine hours of uninterrupted nightly sleep."

Choosing the right mattress can be especially challenging for couples. "What I do recommend to patients whose needs or comfort differs from their bed partner's," Rosen says, "is to try a bed with personal dual options -- a bed that can be customized for the comfort of each person -- or push together two twin beds that meet the individual needs of each bed partner."

Aside from giving you the chance to test mattresses before buying, brick-and-mortar stores also give you the chance to negotiate on price, something you can't easily do online. "There's usually more room for haggling if you purchase from a showroom than if you purchase online," says Nick Robinson, editor and publisher of Sleep Like The Dead, an independent sleep product review website. However, he adds that many online retailers offer more competitive prices so you may still come out ahead without haggling.

A Few More Tips

  • Read online reviews. Krim encourages consumers to read online reviews before buying a mattress online. "That's one of the beautiful things about the transparency that the Internet provides," he says. Reviews shouldn't be the only factor that consumers consider, but looking at aggregate ratings can give you a barometer, Robinson adds. Beyond the top star ratings, look for reviews that align with your needs. "When reading customer reviews, make sure to look for mattress descriptions that suit your preference," Rosen says. "Determine what attributes are important to you -- firm, soft, etc. -- and find a mattress that meets your needs."

  • Go beyond the retailer's website. Before buying, check out the retailer's Facebook page and Twitter feed, and see if they're registered with the Better Business Bureau. A few consumer complaints aren't necessarily a deal-breaker -- after all, some consumers are just chronic complainers -- but watch how and if the retailer responds. Does it try to resolve the issue promptly? Or, does it delete or ignore negative comments? Robinson says social media is "a really powerful transparent lens that isn't in place for a lot of traditional stores."

  • Check the return policy. Regardless of how or where you buy a mattress, it's important to check the retailer's return policy because even mattresses that have been rest-tested in a store may not be comfortable for a full night's sleep. "Some will require you to take the mattress to, say, your local UPS outlet, whereas others will arrange that someone will come and pick it up," Robinson says. Also, check if you'll get a full refund for returns or if there are any fees deducted from what you paid. "How is it processed?" Uusimaki asks. "Are there going to be charges? Is there going to be a restocking fee?"

  • Decide what to do with your existing mattress. Many municipalities won't take bulky items like mattresses as part of regular trash pickup, so you may need to arrange for a donation or disposal if you're not keeping your old mattress. Your mattress retailer may be able to take away your old mattress for you, but often for a fee.