Why is Charlotte’s mattress business booming?

When you’re testing a mattress, you’re supposed to lie on it the same way you sleep. So I stretched out on one at a Sleepy’s store recently, then curled to my left side. Consumers Reports magazine says to do this for 10 minutes on each side, which is an eternity in mattress showroom years.

But I reclined long enough to decide that the mattress was indeed comfortable. Then again, so were most all the mattresses I’d tested – inner-spring, latex, memory foam and the adjustable-firmness Sleep Number bed. (My Sleep Number is 40.)

The Sleepy’s mattress was a hybrid, some mix of coils and foam and maybe gel, too, added to provide a cooler sleep. Was it a plush or pillowtop model? I had already forgotten.

What I remembered, however, as I tried beds, Goldilocks-like, in six different stores, is that mattresses rank among life’s most frustrating purchases. Experts had warned me. So had one salesman. “People will say,” the sales guy confided, “it’s harder than buying a car.”

I need a new mattress. My husband and I are sleeping on a king-sized Sealy, a Normandy Medallion model, circa 1991, that we should have tossed years ago if we had followed mattress industry guidelines.

But what really prompted my mattress research was curiosity. Months ago, I began noticing mattress stores. They seemed to be popping up everywhere. Six now operate within five miles of my house, including two Mattress Firms on diagonal corners of the same Huntersville intersection.

And those aren’t the only places that sell mattresses. You can get them at department and furniture stores, at Costco and Big Lots, even at H.H. Gregg, an appliance and electronics chain. Some high schools are now doing mattress-sale fundraisers. Really.

I was perplexed, and I wasn’t the only one. If you Google Why are there so many mattress stores? you’ll find the question posted on message boards. But the answers – People like to sleep. Is it like a money-laundering front? Giant markups. – weren’t very satisfying .

My husband and I had discussed replacement for years, ever since we noticed mattress advertisements featuring ghastly magnified images of dust mites that live in your bedding and feast on your dead skin. The dust mites creeped us out.

But it was easy to procrastinate. We were sleeping pretty well, and a mattress seemed to me like the underwear of home purchases – vital, yet unexciting.

Also, as I suspected, becoming an educated mattress consumer wasn’t easy. The first sales guy I encountered told me that switching from inner-spring to memory foam would be a “leap of faith.” The one at a second store claimed that changing wasn’t a big deal. One salesman said I could jump on a new mattress to break it in. Others called this a terrible idea.

I learned that my two-sided flippable mattress was an endangered species, given that most mattresses these days are nonflippable. I discovered that it’s difficult to comparison shop, because different stores sell the same mattresses with different names and different tops.

I also encountered a sales technique that relies on the “ick” factor: A salesman explained that I sweat a pint of liquid every night, and the uric acid in sweat is what breaks down my mattress. Ick.

And boy, do prices vary. I found a crummy twin-size mat of a mattress for $39 and I tested luxury mattresses, at $4,000 and up, that adjusted, vibrated and included USB ports so you can power your favorite electronic devices, even though sleep experts will tell you not to use them before bed.

I learned that “mattress” is one of the most-searched terms on Consumer Reports’ website. And I came to understand why.

A simpler era for sleep

It wasn’t always this complicated. Back in the 1960s, when a teenaged Alan Hirsch began working at his family’s Dilworth Mattress Co., a mattress usually meant an inner-spring, made with metal coils. “There wasn’t much that you could do with it,” he says. “There were different covers. But everything was pretty close.”

Dilworth Mattress’s Hirsch, unlike his growth-driven competitors, has downsized in recent years from eight stores to a single factory and showroom on West Tremont Avenue, where he relies on word of mouth, specialty orders and business from designers and repeat customers. (Once, at a customer’s request, he made a round mattress designed to hang from the ceiling.)

Hirsch has witnessed the rise and fall of waterbeds, the ascension of memory foam and the demise of countless competitors. When he discourses about today’s mattress climate, he uses the word “crazy” a lot.

“It’s just a huge influx of stores now,” he said. “It really is crazy. It’s gotten so much more difficult to buy, because there’s so many more people in the business, and they’re all trying to differentiate themselves.”

In 1972, when Hirsch took the helm of Dilworth Mattress, specialty mattress stores like his were unusual. Most people bought at furniture or department stores. This model has since reversed. Mattress specialty retailers have expanded market share – from 19 percent in 1993 to 46 percent in 2012.

That’s one reason I feel like I’m seeing mattress sellers everywhere: You don’t necessarily note that a new furniture or department store is peddling mattresses. But you notice a free-standing mattress store with a big sign.

“Major mattress retailers are definitely in expansion mode, and Charlotte is seeing some of that play out in its market,” says David Perry, mattress writer for Furniture Today magazine.

In 2010, for instance, Mattress Firm, the nation’s largest mattress retailer, had 14 stores in the eight-county greater Charlotte area. It recently opened its 40th. Sleepy’s, the second-largest retailer, entered North Carolina in 2011 and now has 27 stores, including 12 in Charlotte and surrounding towns.

Nationally, bedding revenues keep climbing. The top 25 U.S. bedding retailers saw a 16.3 percent increase in 2012, according to Furniture Today. The magazine predicts continued retail bedding growth into 2018.

The $2,500 mattress

What’s fueling this growth? Higher prices, for one thing. Mike Magnuson heads, a sort of of bedding that helps consumers compare prices. He says that years of extensive advertising from high-end manufacturers such as Sleep Number and Tempur-Pedic have persuaded shoppers that “it’s not crazy to spend $1,500 on a mattress.” The message resonated, he says, when consumers considered how much time they spend in bed.

That mindset shift has allowed other manufacturers to follow. Over the past 20 years, the average spent on mattresses per household has risen 68 percent, according to the International Sleep Products Association. “Twenty years ago, to say, ‘I’m going to spend $2,500 on a mattress,’ people’s jaws would have hit the floors,” Magnuson says.

Industry leaders also attribute growth to pent-up demand from the recession. “Right now we’re in a great time period where the housing market is rebounding,” says Mattress Firm’s Cricket Goforth, a district manager for the Charlotte area. When people move into a new house, they often buy new mattresses.

Perry, however, sees other forces at work. His view is that “aggressive, growth-oriented retailers see an opportunity to help consumers improve their lives by getting a better night of sleep on a better mattress.”

Their success hinges on convincing people to purchase a mattress more often than I have. Sixty percent of Americans wait between nine and 20 years to replace their mattresses, according to Mattress Firm. The industry-funded Better Sleep Council wants us to consider replacement every five to seven years.

And it has a persuasive message: Good sleep promotes good health.

The quest for good sleep

“There’s nothing more important than sleep,” says Adam Blank, chief operating officer of Sleepy’s, based in Hicksville, N.Y. Blank thinks we should get a new one every five years, given that technological advances keep producing better mattresses. “If I’m going to spend seven or eight hours on a bed every night,” he says, “that’s where I’m going to put my dollar.”

It’s an appealing argument, that the right mattress can improve our health. Studies say good sleep can reduce stress, help keep weight off, even enhance productivity. As journalist Eve Fairbanks wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine, “We can now sleep in order to maximize our economic value.”

So maybe we’re buying fancier mattresses to sleep better. But are we also buying because our old ones are wearing out faster? That’s what Dilworth Mattress’s Hirsch believes. Many industry officials would disagree, but Hirsch says today’s materials aren’t as good as they used to be. With comfy pillowy tops, mattresses feel good initially, he says, but manufacturers skimp on the inside and “you end up with two big body impressions, because they’re using too much soft material.”

Also, unless you buy from the few remaining two-sided mattress manufacturers, including Dilworth Mattress and the Original Mattress Factory, you can’t flip your mattress anymore. For years, manufacturers advised customers to flip and rotate mattresses for even wear. In the past 10 years, most manufacturers have switched to one-sided mattresses. They say these are better. Their rationale is that people weren’t flipping anyway, that having a sturdy bottom side makes them stronger, and that pillowtop mattresses didn’t hold up well when flipped.

Critics, however, say one-sided mattresses are more likely to develop indentations known as body impressions. “By and large, people hate those,” Goodbed’s Magnuson says.

Finding the right mattress

When the Observer recently queried readers about mattress purchases, we heard from more than 50 people, many of whom were pleased with a variety of recent buys. “It has been a great purchase and has made an incredible difference for both my wife and I,” one man said of the Tepur-Pedic he bought at a Mattress Firm.

But we also heard about pushy sales people, bad service and defective mattresses. Several buyers complained about dips and indentations.

If there was a prize for bad mattress luck, it should probably go to Drew Menard of Charlotte. About four years ago, he bought a $850 king-sized pillowtop at a furniture store. It felt fine at first, but after about a week, “you could almost feel springs,” he says. “I felt like I was sleeping on metal.”

He returned it and bought another, which arrived with black scuff marks. It went back, replaced with a mattress that came with cuts in the covering. Its replacement, mattress No. 4, lasted more than three years, but gradually developed two-inch-deep body indentations. They’re so severe that his warranty has covered replacement.

So he recently upgraded to a $1,300 Kingsdown, paying the difference between the new one and his previous mattress, plus a $99 swap-out and delivery fee. If you’re keeping score, this is his fifth mattress in less than five years.

“They don’t make them like they used to,” he says. “I’m thinking maybe this will be the good one and I won’t have to worry for 10 years.”

I, on the other hand, still haven’t bought a mattress. But with my husband’s help, I did recently flip our old one, probably for the final time. Turning a king-sized mattress is a pain, no doubt about it. It wedged for a moment between ceiling fan blades on ascent and knocked over a lamp on descent.

But what a mattress: Nearly 23 years old. Still no body impressions.