March 6, 2013 | Comments (1)

Consumer Reports mattress information: What you need to know

As founder of a mattress information website, people often ask me what I think of the information that Consumer Reports provides about mattresses.  This question comes up enough that I thought I’d share my answer publicly.

What do I think about Consumer Reports mattress information?

Let me start by saying that I love Consumer Reports.  I’m a big fan of their mission and methodology, and a long-time reader of their publications.  When I bought my last car, Consumer Reports was an invaluable resource.  I’ve also used their information to guide other major household purchases, such as kitchen appliances.  In fact, before starting GoodBed, I even read through their many articles about mattresses and found a number of useful ‘shopping tips’ in them.

That said, when it comes to its mattress ratings, the Consumer Reports approach is completely misleading.  In the mattress category, the traditional Consumer Reports approach has two critical downfalls:

Problem #1:  There is NO ‘best mattress’ for everyone.

This is perhaps the first thing that every mattress shopper should know.  In fact, there is not even such a thing as a ‘great mattress’ for everyone.  Not even at a given price point. In short, this is a complete fallacy.  As a fan of Consumer Reports, it’s very disappointing to see them perpetuate this fundamental misunderstanding.  The reality is that everyone’s mattress needs are unique — depending (for example) on your body’s specific size and shape, and your personal comfort preferences.

We see the value of personal needs and preferences very clearly in the extensive owner satisfaction data that we collect every day.  For example, Sleep Number beds are rated nearly a full star point higher by people who say that the ability to adjust the comfort level of their mattress on a regular basis is very important vs. people who say it’s not important.  That differential is completely independent of all the other factors that go into the owner’s satisfaction during the lifetime of the product — including its ability to provide proper back support, suitable pressure relief, high sleep quality, and even sufficient product longevity.

Likewise, Tempur-Pedic mattresses are rated nearly a full star point higher by people that like their mattress to have “memory” (so it responds slowly when you lie down or move around on it) relative to people who have no preference on this point.  And, people who have no preference rate their Tempur-Pedic bed more than a full star point higher than people who specifically do not like their mattress to have “memory”.  So, in aggregate, this one single factor accounts for a differential of 2.1 stars in the overall satisfaction rating amongst Tempur-Pedic owners!  And of course, this data all comes from people who chose to buy a Tempur-Pedic in the first place — so the disparity would be even greater if it included people who were more certain that they don’t like their mattress to have “memory,” and chose not to buy a Tempur-Pedic on that basis.

Mattresses are actually more like pants than they are like washing machines.  Choosing the right mattress means finding one that matches your body size, shape, sleep position(s), and preferences.  As such, publishing a list of the ‘best mattresses’ is kinda like saying the ‘best pants’ are the ‘Levi’s 535 in navy blue and a size 7 Long’.  Would this exact pair of pants be a good match for most people…?

Unfortunately, most consumers don’t know this about mattresses, and many make the mistake of relying on Consumer Reports’ recommendations.  This leads to unhappy consumers — as well as unhappy retailers, who need to deal with the resulting returns, comfort exchanges, negative consumer reviews, and the like.

Problem #2: There are too many good choices for Consumer Reports to cover.

Consumer Reports likes to do deep research on products.  They pick some models, bring them into the lab, and test them rigorously.  With feature-rich products, they can dissect how easy they are to use, how well they perform their stated functions, and how well they stand up to abuse.  In the end, they like to make a ‘one-size-fits-all’ recommendation based on their research of these select products.

The problem in the mattress category is that there are thousands of mattress models available at any given time.  This is true even if you ignore all the different names that retailers use to make their models seem unique.  Even the 10 most popular models would account for less than 5% of mattresses sold.  With over 300 manufacturers in the US, there are simply a huge number of good choices available to today’s consumer.

So, how many models are covered in the heavily promoted new study from Consumer Reports (forthcoming in the May 2013 issue)?  A grand total of…drum roll please…12 models.  Worse yet, many of these models are only available in certain parts of the country, and some have already been discontinued…!

So, is there a better approach to mattress information?

Having focused on this problem for several years now, we believe that consumers need the following information to choose the right mattress:

  1. Guidance on specific models that are available in their area.
  2. Ratings for those models from people like them.

Who can provide this?  We can.  If you share our beliefs, help spread the word.

Is there hope for Consumer Reports in the mattress category?

As I said earlier, Consumer Reports is a great organization with a noble mission.  In many ways, our mission is to be the Consumer Reports of the mattress category, but in a way that a generalist publication could never do.  We aspire to the level of trust and respect that Consumer Reports has earned over its many years of consumer service.  We believe that our dedicated focus on mattresses allows us to develop a specialized solution that meets the unique needs of this category.

At the same time, I would be the first to acknowledge that there are things that Consumer Reports can do that are harder for us to offer.  For example, scientific studies of durability require specialized equipment, a large laboratory, and significant expertise in testing and measuring such things.  Predicting durability is a very important question in the area of mattresses.  We hope to see more from Consumer Reports in this area, and we would even be interested in partnering with them in this regard.

In the meantime, I hope Consumer Reports will refrain from misleading consumers into thinking they can rely on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ list of mattress recommendations.  Mattress shoppers are extremely confused, and thus are desperate for a simple answer like a list of the ‘best mattresses.’  It’s incumbent upon reputable information sources like Consumer Reports to protect them from this type of misinformation, not foist it upon them.

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Michael is the founder and CEO of Revv Media, the publisher of GoodBed. Prior to starting Revv Media, Michael was a Principal of Waller Sutton Capital, a New York-based private equity firm focused on the media and marketing services industries. He is also the founder and General Partner of Westward Capital Management, a private equity investment firm based in San Francisco. Michael graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BAS in Systems Engineering and a BSE in Finance from The Wharton School. He received his MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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