When Phillis Kalisky moved in with her then-boyfriend, Jeff Mair, some 15 years ago, they ditched her old mattress, which she describes unkindly, and kept his, a brand-name innerspring mattress that was newer, though not devoid of problems.
“There was a giant lump in the middle of the bed,” said Kalisky, now Mair, beginning to narrate what turned out to be an epic mattress saga. “We had to climb this giant hump to meet somewhere in the middle to then return to our respective sagging places on either side.”
After some time, the couple went to a local store, laid on the many beds, as people do, and settled for a brand-name mattress among the first in the foam business. They also decided to upgrade to a king, what Mair quickly describes as a “king-sized problem.”
“That bed slept really hot,” said Mair. “I’d wake up in a pool of sweat.”
And so began a decade-long adventure in finding the right mattress.
“It’s been an ongoing thing since we started dating — the problem of the bed,” she said.
While there is nothing quite as humorous as seeing fully clothed people flop around beds in a mattress store under the vigilant eyes of a talking sales person, the choice of a mattress is uncommonly personal, often not fun, and rather consequential. Given the importance of sleep quality to everything from our happiness to our health, it’s a decision that merits thought and sometimes experimentation.
Unfortunately, because of the blossoming number of brands, kinds of gels, foam types and densities, coil counts and such things as hybrids and off-gassing, it’s a choice that has become mind-numbingly complex.
“You spend a third of your life in bed, so it’s an important decision,” said Jeffrey Varner, a salesman for America’s Mattress, a family-owned and local company with six stores in the Charleston area. “But it’s more of a personal lifestyle decision than a product decision.”
More important than coil count or memory foam thickness, he said, is how the bed feels to you when you lie down on it.
“It’s all about comfort,” he said. “People can get caught up in specs and get very confused.”
On the backdrop of that complexity is the emergence of online-only mattress startups. You do research online, read the reviews and trust your decision to a company’s philosophy. Then you click and order a mattress with a long trial period and free shipping in case you change your mind.
“We wanted to create the best possible product and offer a fun shopping experience,” said Rob Birkett, who launched an online-only mattress startup called Dromma, the newest kid on the block, based in North Carolina.
Dromma offers two choices of memory foam mattress: a harder and a softer, both made entirely in the Carolinas. Simple as that.
“People like to shop online,” he said, “and a five-minute test of a mattress in a store doesn’t really tell you anything.”
Mair, who recently bought a $1,000-or-so mattress online, agrees. She argues, and statistics support it, that the odds of a bad experience with an online mattress are no higher than they are after spending 10 minutes on a bed another 5,000 people have experienced.
Is she finally happy? “We’re about as happy as I am done going to mattress stores,” she said.
Consumer Reports offers a comprehensive guide to mattress shopping by type — innersprings, memory foam, and latex, air and water — much appreciated by some readers but much maligned by others.
Other websites, including Mattress Inquirer, Sleeplikethedead.com and the Sleep Sherpa also give a ton of advice, ratings and guides. It seems, though, that the advice is never enough or good enough, which points to the fact that sleep is an intimately subjective thing.
Generally speaking, innerspring mattresses, many now with memory foam or gel tops, still take the lion’s share of sales, but they also have the lowest overall satisfaction ratings. Only 63 percent of innerspring mattress owners report being satisfied, according to Mattress Inquirer, compared with around 80 percent of memory foam and latex owners and 79 percent of waterbed owners. While satisfaction rate trends vary, memory foam and latex obviously are inching up in popularity.
But that doesn’t mean that the spring mattress is not right for you, especially now that spring mattresses most often have some component in foam, even when they are not classified as hybrids, which are a bit of both.
Comparison shopping seems to be exceedingly complicated. Manufacturers apparently label the same product or slightly different products differently for different stores, and you can never be sure it is quite the same thing.
Also, said Varner, you might have a bad experience with a foam bed at one store and a good one at another. “Come in with a clear mind,” he said. “My foam or coil could be different from the one down the street.”
Though big price differences most definitely equates to some difference in the product, it does not mean that the less expensive product is not the better one for you, Varner said.
In fact, according to Sleeplikethedead.com, lower-priced mattresses — those in the $600 to $1,500 range — often rate comparably to or better than more expensive options. Some of the lowest-priced options have the greatest owner satisfaction ratings.
And when it comes to stats and specs, a coil count or heat tempering that is good for a person with a certain weight may not be right for another. Again, Varner said, a bed is not a statistic.
“Focus on your comfort,” he said.
After returning the king-size, famous-brand memory foam mattress at a loss, Mair and her husband chose a natural latex mattress.
“It was so uncomfortable it was impossible. Jeff’s limbs would fall asleep on it,” she recounted.
After that came a supposedly locally made mattress that, she said, “was a piece of garbage.”
“We bought the fancy-pants one with the foam top and ... that time my limbs would fall asleep on it,” she said.
After that, they considered a Sleep Number bed costing $10,000. She gasped at the memory.
“I don’t spend $10,000 on a car, but we were so miserable,” she said. After the salesman refused to throw in free sheets, they ended up at another store with a cool-gel Italian mattress costing some $5,000, for which they took out a loan.
“I was so excited,” Mair said, “but that thing was so heavy I couldn’t even make the bed.” Plus, she developed an allergy to it that made her break out in itchy bumps. Fortunately they got their money back and decided to try a Costco mattress. Again, her skin broke out in a rash and they returned it.
Throughout the saga, Mair and her husband spent an untold amount of money. “I don’t even want to know how much. I will have a heart attack and pass out,” she said.
Finally, after 15 years of mattress drama, Mair and her husband took the mattress shopping online, which seems to be making plenty of people happy.
It may sound like a leap of faith, but according to Best Mattress Reviews, 78 percent of people who bought mattresses online were completely satisfied versus 71 percent of consumers who purchased from a showroom. Sleeplikethedead.com agrees: Statistically speaking, there is little increased risk of being dissatisfied when buying a mattress online.
“Whatever you try in the store that 5,000 people have laid on is not going to feel like it is in your home anyway, with your partner and your dogs and cats and whatever you sleep with,” said Mair, who lives on James Island. “You have to sleep on something for 60 days before you know if it something you really like.”
Enter Dromma, a company whose entire mission was to deliver a great sleeping experience without the hassle of the store. Birkett and his partner, after having sleep problems of their own and a half-dream of a startup, engaged Hickory Springs Manufacturing in Conover, N.C., to make a mattress that would address the problems they found in other mattresses. It would combine the most popular materials around: a layer of latex for bounce, a layer of elastic gel for coolness and contour memory, and then 8 inches of memory foam core for total body support. The Dromma mattress, costing between $550 and $950, has a 200-day trial period, has a removable, washable cover, is shipped to your door in a small box, and is entirely made in North and South Carolina.
Since the company launched in December, it has exceeded sales projections. And, not a mattress has been returned, Birkett said. “The numbers are looking great ... and we are really happy with the reviews,” he said.
Varner points out that most online mattress shoppers are millennials, who are perhaps more adaptable and flexible in their sleep requirements. Dromma confirms this is true. Nonetheless, reviews for mattresses sold online reflect the same pros and cons of store-bought mattresses.
Certainly, wherever you end up buying, reading mattress reviews online is worth every second. The Sleep Sherpa, which reviews online-only mattress company products as well as others, including everyone from Casper to Purple and Yogabed, gives Dromma and other online-only mattresses higher scores than several big-brand mattresses.
Beyond comfort, experts recommend getting mattresses with the longest possible trial periods: 100 to 200 days. If you care about the environment, you may want to check how green the materials are.
Some people are very concerned with the off-gassing of mattresses, the odor they emit when they are new, which results from the breakdown of their volatile organic compounds. Several mattress-review sites rate off-gassing by brand and type of mattress. Overall, it is a temporary phenomenon, but you are encouraged to not put sheets on a mattress until the odor has gone.
Most mattresses do not need turning anymore, said Varner, and in terms of lifespan, it varies on use and even a person’s weight. Overall, mattress lifespan is between eight and 10 years and, in the case of memory foam and latex products, is going up.
Remember, Varner said, warranties are only for breakage or parts or defects in manufacturing. “You can’t return it because you don’t like it anymore.”
And, when you replace your mattress, think of the planet. Some 20 million mattresses are discarded ever year, taking up precious space in landfills. At least three states have passed laws mandating mattress recycling (metal can be repurposed and foams and fabrics can be recycled for use in rug padding and other applications) but South Carolina is not among them.
There is a mattress recycling business in Pamplico, Nine Lives Mattress Recycling. It works mostly with the military, colleges (though not any Charleston-based) and private industry, but it will take the mattress of a good citizen willing to make the drive.