Secret Shopper: The More Things Change …

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secret shopper shopping bagOur secret shopper gives three retailers in the Southeast mixed reviews. While she found an appealing selection of products, customer service and store design left something to be desired

Sleep Savvy thinks 2019 is a perfect year to revive our secret shopper feature, sending consumers out around the country to see how mattress retailers are adapting to shifting shopping habits and a changing retail landscape while still fulfilling what should remain their core mission: selling quality sleep products to help their customers get a good night’s sleep.

For the first installment, we sent a shopper to a midsize metro area in the Southeast, asking her to visit a national mattress seller, a local furniture store and a small regional sleep shop. All the stores have ratings of 4.6 stars or higher on a popular review site. We asked our shopper to spend about an hour in each store and equipped her with a detailed checklist of factors to assess, including the appearance of the store and bedding floor, the greeting from the retail sales associate, the product selection and the rest-testing process. We also asked her to evaluate each retailer’s online presence to see how easy it was for her to research products and shop online. Read on to learn more about what she found — and whether she wanted to buy a mattress set from any of these retailers.

Store 1: National mattress seller comes on too strong

This store is located on a major thoroughfare in one of the area’s busiest shopping districts and set in a small retail strip with no landscaping to soften the exterior. A man, who I would soon learn was the RSA, was standing outside, I think, finishing a cigarette. That might have explained a stain that looked suspiciously like a burn on the edge of one of the mattresses. Aside from that stain and a bathroom that needed a fresh coat of paint, this was the most visually pleasing store I visited — airy, soothing wall colors, every mattress outfitted with an attractive branded foot protector and two matching pillows.

The RSA introduced himself, shook my hand and led me into the store, which displays about 60 mattresses on the floor, plus several standing on end in a value center, all from three national brands. I saw no boxed beds or prominent accessories displays. The RSA had me first try a trio of “firm, plush and extra plush” mattresses, all from the same brand, near the store’s entrance. After I indicated my preference, he said he’d have me try no more than five other beds, limiting the number so I didn’t get confused or overwhelmed.

I dont want to sound like a car salesmanThe RSA, the chattiest of the three stores’ RSAs, stayed with me the entire time, not hovering but standing nearby and always talking as I tried mattresses. He highlighted some features, such as zip-off covers and pocketed springs, but kept the emphasis on how each mattress felt to me.

He mentioned adjustable bases, which I noticed under several floor models. When he didn’t offer to demonstrate, I asked if I could try one. He had me test both a basic model with head and foot tilt and then a step-up model with massage and other features. The RSA demonstrated the basics of the first base before handing me the remote. He highlighted the fact that adjustables “aren’t hospital beds” and said they could help relieve my lower back pain, which I had told him about earlier.

Although every mattress was outfitted with two pillows and there appeared to be different types throughout the store, I was never fitted with a pillow. This seemed all the stranger because the RSA told me “20% of the mattress’ comfort comes from the pillow.” He didn’t mention pillows again until the end, when he said he could include two free with purchase.

As I narrowed my mattress choices to two — a plush hybrid for $2,599 and an all-foam for $3,599, he intensified the sales pressure, saying more than once, “I don’t want to sound like a car salesman” and then saying something that sounded exactly like a stereotypical car salesperson. Each bed included a hangtag with pricing for mattress only, mattress with foundation and mattress with X adjustable base, but when I inquired about prices, he brought out a calculator and started quoting different totals based on a seasonal sale and a base I liked that wasn’t included on the hangtags of the mattresses I was considering.

It got very confusing. At times I felt like he was pulling numbers out of the air and he refused to write down the prices he was telling me. Early on, he had said he wasn’t allowed to haggle, yet near the end promised to call his manager to offer me discounts. And while the RSA at the furniture store seemed to steer me toward the lower-priced bed when I was deciding between two, this RSA talked up the higher-priced model, noting he slept on the same brand. As with the RSAs at the other two stores, I felt like this RSA helped me find mattresses I would like, but he, more than the others, was determined to get me to buy a mattress that day.

To help close the sale, he told me about the store’s return policy (a 100-plus-night guarantee), suggesting I could buy the higher-priced mattress and return it for the lower-priced model if I didn’t like it. His last attempt to force me into deciding was heading to the computer to check stock, telling me the store had only one of each mattress remaining. I didn’t believe him.


Online: National mattress retailer

Shopping is (mostly) easy

The national mattress seller has a robust website that allowed me to narrow my mattress choices by brand, construction, feel and price. More detailed information about each mattress’ features, construction, dimensions, etc., is presented through graphics and language that makes it easy to compare one model with another. The site offers no accessories and a limited number of boxed mattresses.

The site prominently displays prices — and at the time I was searching sale prices also — for all product. Confusing to me, several models were advertised with sale-priced foundations, although when I tried to add a foundation to my shopping cart, I couldn’t find a way to do so.


REPORT CARD: NATIONAL MATTRESS RETAILER

Pluses

Big selection of mattresses at all price points

+ Attractive, spacious store

Good selection and demonstration of adjustable bases

Minuses

Intense sales pressure

Confusing pricing

Stained mattress



Store 2: Furniture retailer misses out on accessories sales

This local furniture store has been in business for several decades. It is on a quiet side street near a busy shopping area, and if I hadn’t used GPS, I might have had a hard time finding it. The standalone building is older and well-maintained, and I liked its entrance, which was decorated with seasonal flowers.

I walked into an entryway filled with living room furniture. Everything was displayed nicely, but it was crowded with merchandise. I didn’t see any salespeople until a man dressed in business casual khakis and a polo shirt came from another part of the store to greet me. He was personable, though he didn’t tell me his name or shake my hand. When he asked, “What brings you in today?” I told him I needed a new mattress and he led me to the mattress department at the back of the store while he asked, “What size do you need?” (answer: queen) and “Is it for a master bedroom or guest bedroom” (answer: master). He never inquired about my current mattress, or if I had sleep problems or other health issues, although I did say during our conversation that I have a bad lower back.

The store sells about a dozen mattresses from two major national brands. I didn’t see any boxed mattresses. The bedding department felt a little neglected and, like the foyer, was cramped, although the beds themselves were clean and orderly. Mattress sets were paired with headboards, which I assumed were for sale but I didn’t see prices. Upbeat music played in the background.

The RSA took a pillow from a small rack, put a disposable protector over it and handed it to me, while he explained that I would carry the pillow with me as I tried mattresses. He told me “25% of a mattress’ comfort comes from the pillow” yet never asked if the pillow I was using felt comfortable or tried to sell me one. 

To start, he said, I should lie down on “three hybrid beds — soft, medium and firm” to see which I liked best. The three beds, all the same brand, were in a row at the front of the department. After trying all three, I ruled out the first, and he then had me try two additional mattresses. At one point, he plopped down on a mattress with me to demonstrate how pocketed innersprings reduced motion transfer but otherwise stood several feet away so I didn’t feel like he was hovering. He explained the cooling features of some mattresses and also mentioned adjustable bases a couple of times, though never demonstrated or asked if I wanted to try one.

After I tried five mattresses, he asked me which two felt the best and left to give me a few minutes alone. “Get comfortable,” he said. “If I come back and you’re asleep, we know that’s the right one.” The mattress area is much darker than the rest of the store, partially because the ceiling is painted black, which made it nice. But, at times, bright overhead lights shined in my eyes.

When the RSA returned, I told him I was having a hard time deciding between two plush hybrids and that was when he first brought up prices, telling me one model was $3,199 and the other $2,499. (I had looked when he left me alone and found mattress prices under a flap on each foot protector.) He told me he encourages people to buy the mattress that feels best to them and “to keep price in mind,” suggesting it would make sense to pick the less expensive bed if it felt best. If I bought the $3,199 mattress, he said he would “throw in a mattress pad.” He explained pricing and available financing in a forthright way that made sense to me. At this point, he also told me the store would accept returns on only one of the two brands the store carries and that if I returned a bed from the other brand, I would be charged a restocking fee of $400, which seemed really high to me.

I felt like the RSA wanted to help me find a mattress I liked and didn’t pressure me to buy. He recommended I come back the following day and try again when I was well-rested. As I was leaving, he gave me his card, wrote down the model name and brand of the highest priced bed I liked, and suggested I visit a specific mattress review website to learn more.


Online: Local furniture store

A website for research only

The furniture retailer has a serviceable website that allowed me to search mattresses by size or brand. I also could research mattresses based on a number of factors, including construction, features and dimensions, and the site provided information about warranties via links to the manufacturers.

On the downside, a few links were dead and the retailer doesn’t include prices for sleep products online. Instead, the site encourages shoppers to email the store and provides a direct link to request additional information.

Interestingly, the website includes an assortment of pillows and adjustable bases, neither of which were displayed well or demonstrated to me in the store.


REPORT CARD: LOCAL FURNITURE STORE

Pluses

Engaging, not overly aggressive RSA

+ Inviting store entrance

Provided pillow to carry while trying mattresses

Minuses

No adjustable base demonstration

Mattress department felt run down

No pillow fitting



Store 3: Regional chain could try harder

The last store I visited is a mattress shop in a building that previously housed a restaurant. Like the first store, it’s on a busy street and I had driven by it many times. The first thing I saw when I walked inside was a mattress, wrapped in plastic and pushed up against one wall of the entryway, and a display of pillows on a stand shoved up against the other wall. Later, I noticed a plastic unit containing more sheets at the back of the store, with mattress protectors on the floor beneath them. It made me think the store was too cheap to invest in nicer shelving. The RSA never said a word about any of those items, except to tell me as I was leaving that he’d “throw in a nice protector and sheets” if I came back and bought a mattress. I didn’t see any boxed beds.

The rest of the store was sterile and utilitarian, with no music playing. There were a couple of ratty-looking pillows tossed on two of the mattresses; only foot protectors on the others, and no other décor. It felt like the entire store had been set up in about an hour — and could be dismantled by a few guys just as quickly. It made me wonder: If I bought a mattress, would the store still be there in six months if I had a problem with it?

The interior was well-lit, but as in the furniture store, the bright ceiling lights sometimes shined uncomfortably in my eyes. The store smelled clean and fresh, until the RSA’s oniony lunch order was delivered near the end of my visit.

Would the store still be there in six monthsI was greeted by the RSA sitting at a desk near the back of the store. He welcomed me and introduced himself by name but didn’t get up. He was friendly and willing to answer my questions yet typed away on the store’s computer most of the time, getting up only once or twice during my hour-long visit. Perhaps I was distracting him from some other important work. Another negative: His outfit of mismatched sweatshirt and sweatpants was too casual.

When I told him I needed a new mattress, he asked if I preferred “soft or firm.” When I said I didn’t know, he pointed, while still seated behind that desk, at two nearby beds and suggested I lie on them. I told him which I liked better, and he gestured to another two beds for me to try. The store displays about 30 mattresses from three major national brands. I could tell I was going to be mostly on my own figuring out which mattress was best for me. He didn’t ask any questions about my sleeping habits or health problems, although, as I did at the other two stores, I told him about my back troubles. I didn’t feel comfortable putting my head on those ratty pillows and, because he never offered me one from the branded display rack, I used my hands as a pillow.

At one point, he mentioned that the store carries adjustable bases but didn’t encourage me to try one until I specifically asked if I could. Then he grabbed a remote and started moving the head and foot up and down, before handing it to me to “play around with.” He told me some other adjustable bases in the store had “bells and whistles” like “massage and zero gravity” yet didn’t recommend I try one of those.

Each bed had a hangtag with several pricing options — mattress only, mattress plus flat foundation and mattress plus several adjustable bases. He told me that if I chose to buy a floor model (either mattress or adjustable base, or both), I would pay about half the cost on the hangtag. He also said I could return any bed within 30 days, if I purchased a mattress protector. I narrowed my choices down to a hybrid with a basic adjustable base for $2,499 and a similar hybrid also with that base for $2,999.

As I did at the other two stores, I wrapped up my visit by telling him I was having a tough time making up my mind and needed to think about it. Back behind the desk, he reminded me of his name and told me to have a good evening.


Online: Regional chain

Easy to buy but not easy to research options

The small regional chain has a decent website that allows you to shop mattresses and bases (adjustable and flat) by brand, price and size. A narrow selection of the pillows, sheets and protectors I saw in the store also is available through the e-commerce site. Interestingly, the site advertises a mattress brand that I didn’t see in the store and that the RSA never discussed.

Prices are prominently displayed, yet of the three retailers’ websites, this one provides the least amount of information about each product — basically just a short description that relies on marketing phrases with few specifics. Several of the descriptions are repetitive, making it hard to compare one model with another.


REPORT CARD: REGIONAL CHAIN

Pluses

+ Clean, new store

+ Quality brands

Nice selection of pillows, protectors and sheets

Minuses

– Lackadaisical mattress sales presentation

– Nonexistent sales presentation on accessories

Complete lack of décor



THE VERDICT

I hadn’t shopped for a mattress in years. In many ways, the stores and shopping process felt the same as before, and there wasn’t much in terms of either the customer service or store design that wowed me. On the other hand, I was excited about the adjustable bases and happy to find comfortable mattresses at all three stores.

The RSAs who helped me were friendly and answered my questions, although the information each gave me sometimes contradicted what another said, and in a couple of cases was just wrong, as when one told me it was illegal to sell mattresses containing cotton. And the RSA at the national mattress seller pushed so hard for the sale it made me uncomfortable.

At all three retailers, I ended up liking similar mattresses — a plush hybrid or plush all-foam. All came with 10-year warranties, plus free delivery, set up and removal of my old bed. I was looking at spending from $2,499 to $3,599. That’s a big swing.

In the end, I wasn’t excited about buying a mattress at any of these stores. If I had to choose, I would go with a plush hybrid mattress and adjustable base at the regional chain, and then order new pillows online. The RSA was the least helpful, at times even disinterested, and the store was utilitarian at best, but at a discounted half price for buying floor models, it was the cheapest.