Secret Shopper: Going to Extremes in California

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The search for a new mattress leaves a couple feeling at times unsatisfied — and even ignored

For this issue’s Undercover, we sent a middle-aged couple out to shop for a new bed for the master bedroom of their new home in Southern California. The husband and wife own a 10-year-old mattress set purchased from a factory-direct in another state, but it no longer offers the support they need. And each has complained of various aches and pains that could be attributed to their unsupportive mattress.

We equipped the couple with a detailed checklist to assess factors ranging from store appearance to the rest-testing process and asked them to visit three mattress retailers in their area — a regional sleep shop chain, a Southern California discount furniture retailer and a locally owned sleep shop with a couple of locations. They spent considerable time exploring each store’s web presence and online reputation, before and after visiting each store. The wife is a web savvy blogger and social media user who is a skilled internet researcher and an active reviewer at Amazon, Google, Yelp and elsewhere.

Read on to learn valuable lessons from their shopping experiences.


Store 1: TMI at regional sleep shop chain

On entering this store, a chemical odor tickled my nostrils — but not my husband’s. It could easily have been from new carpeting, but I never found out the origin.

Show me the pillow! We weren’t told to choose a comfortable pillow for use while rest-testing the beds. So, we either used the pillow already on the bed or in some cases where there was no pillow, we rested our head on our arms.

This freestanding location of a regional sleep shop chain had prominent signage on the side of the building that made it easy to find in a really large shopping area and commercial district. The building was newer, the parking lot neat and tidy. There were two large banners draped across the store awning, one advertising a major brand, the other announcing a 50%-off sale. Plenty of clean windows held large decals for four major mattress brands.

When we stepped inside, we noted the window-lined store was filled with daylight and featured row after row of clean, white beds — but with little else. We counted at least 80 and there was little to no signage, headboards or other décor. There were two rows of high-end brands displayed immediately to our left as we entered.

The retailer is also a factory direct, which explains the large number of proprietary brands that covered at least 50% of the floor.

Left to our own devices, we wouldn’t have known where to start, but a neatly dressed RSA in a button-down shirt approached immediately. He introduced himself by first name, shook our hands and asked if we were having any sleep problems.

We’ve reached the age where we’re happy discuss any aches, pains or surgeries with strangers — as well as the fact that sleep doesn’t come as easily as it once did. He listened patiently, then directed us to the nearest adjustable base, ordering us to lie down.

With the remote in hand, he put the base in a zero gravity position, our heads and knees raised, and began dispensing sleep advice. We needed to change the way we sleep, it would probably take about two weeks to retrain ourselves, but we must no longer sleep on our sides to avoid pressure points and other aches. (And I assumed we would only be able to do this by purchasing the adjustable base we were lying on.)

This all seemed rather drastic to me, plus the position of the base was actually making my lower back uncomfortable, so I moved to jump off the bed and told him I was uninterested in adjustable bases. I think my husband would have disagreed with me, but I didn’t give him the chance.

At the same time, I was also thinking, why doesn’t the RSA hand me the remote and tell me to find a position I was more comfortable in? I might have lingered longer on that base and been convinced to blow my budget. But he didn’t.

At that point, the RSA asked us how much we wanted to spend. I hesitated, not wanting to share the information and I could tell this slightly annoyed him. He insisted he had no way of helping us, if he didn’t know how much we were willing to spend.

My husband told him $1,500 for a queen, mattress only. With that, he led us immediately to the back of the store where he had us try a couple of thin, uncomfortable mattresses as low as $500. Then, we were directed to a $1,500 house brand bed that was far more comfortable, in comparison. It was this bed, a combination of springs and foam, that he most recommended based on our budget and comfort needs.

He also introduced the idea of financing in the event we wanted to spend more, offering 12 months of interest-free payments, and 18 months if our credit was stellar. But we weren’t particularly interested in that option, and at that point he appeared to lose most of his interest in us.

The house-brand bed most recommended by the RSA came with an impressive 10-year, nonprorated warranty that covered dips or body impressions of 1 inch or more.

When we tested that model as well as any others, we didn’t get time alone to speak with each other, as the RSA stayed nearby and continued to ask us questions and provide advice.

We got up from the recommended model, thanked him for his time and said we would think about it. He gave us his card.

As we were leaving the store, I flipped up the fabric-covered flaps on the footguards of several other beds take a look at the prices. Most were out of our price range, and each price was actually a five-column table — mattress only, mattress + flat foundation and mattress + choice of three adjustable base step-ups. Like the rest of our experience in this store, it was a lot to absorb.

Online: Regional sleep shop chain

My overall reaction to this retailer’s online presence was positive. And their search engine results page for the store name looked impressive. I clicked over to the company website and saw many beds on the homepage in my price range. There was clear information featured across the top of the site about delivery, a comfort guarantee and where its products are made. Delivery was free and most beds come with a 100-day comfort guarantee.

The site has a short quiz that yielded a recommendation list of 18 beds fitting our comfort needs. I thought this was a great way to narrow my choices, and it was better than my in-store experience where the RSA gave me too few options among the 80 beds on the floor.

The list held plenty of good options for what appeared to be well-made mattresses that fit within our budget. There was no RSA nearby, but on each page of the website, a live chat box opened and followed me up and down the screen until I clicked the “x”. (actually, it was a little annoying).

Adjustable bases had their own button in the main menu and were priced and sold separately. (In the store, most beds were shown on adjustable bases and mattress pricing included different adjustable bases.)

Since the retailer hasn’t claimed its Google knowledge panel, there are no Google reviews of the store on the right side of the search results screen. But, at Yelp, which is on the first search engine results page for the company, it gets an impressive four stars out of five from about 100 reviewers.

The retailer also has a YouTube account. There are less than a dozen videos and most are television commercials. But some of these have tens of thousands of views and the channel has several thousand subscribers.

Report Card: Regional Sleep Shop Chain

PLUSES

  • Wide selection of beds in a tidy, bright store with clean white mattresses in a range of prices.
  • Strong representation of two major brands, as well as a wide variety of store brands manufactured at its own factory
  • Conveniently located in a popular shopping district
  • Very knowledgeable RSA who had many years of experience and thorough knowledge of the products

MINUSES

  • The immediate attempt to upsell us to an adjustable base was a turn-off.
  • We both felt the RSA came on a little too strong and behaved as if he were a doctor dispensing sleep advice. He also knocked the competition when we mentioned where else we had shopped.
  • We would have liked more time alone and to have the run of the store floor. It felt as though we left without having tried enough mattresses.

Store 2: Opportunity lost at discount furniture chain

This Southern California furniture chain is known for bargain prices and a no-return policy. It has a fairly large bedding assortment — but not too large. It also operates a number of independent sleep shops in high-traffic areas. This wasn’t part of our original plan, but we shopped two of its store locations. Here’s why.

Our first stop was one of their furniture stores, a big box in a commercial and industrial part of town. It was the final days of a tent sale, so we took a quick look, but it was a haphazard display of picked-over items. The RSA manning the tent didn’t look at or greet us.

Inside, the store was mostly empty on an early weekday afternoon, save for a couple of salespeople holding tablets who glided past without greeting us, as well as two women at a checkout counter to our far right — who also didn’t greet us. We made our way across the floor to the bedding department which had about 35 beds on display.

We stood for moments looking around the department before realizing no one was working there. Surely, someone would come in soon to help us? There were several nearby pillow displays, and a large sign provided instructions on how to choose a favorite pillow and begin rest-testing mattresses.
Pillows were all molded foam or latex and priced from $100-$200. Most were a store brand but a few were a national high-end pillow brand.

The pillows in the untidy display cases looked well-used and not very clean, but fortunately there was a box of pillow protectors handy. Looking around the department, the mattress tops had a gray, worn look, as well. This made me not especially eager to lie on any of the beds.

By now, several minutes had passed, so we prepared to shop the department without assistance. Who knew — maybe bedding was self-service, we thought?

Of the 35 beds on the floor, 25 were store brands. The rest were mostly from a single national name brand. The national brand occupied higher price points, which reached $6,000. The store brand filled in all of the lower ones, from $500 to above $2,000, in about $100 increments. These included one unboxed bed in a box with the empty box nearby.

We noted plenty of adjustable bases, including split king models. All beds had pricing under a fabric panel in the foot guard. The pricing consisted of a table listing the price for mattress only, mattress and box spring, and then mattress with two types of adjustable bases (a head-up base and a step-up model).

After testing a couple of models, we became discouraged by the lack of sales assistance and decided to head for the door. On the way out, we encountered three sales associates walking different parts of the store floor. No one said goodbye.

Another day, we decided to give this retailer a second chance. On a weekday afternoon, we visited one of its sleep shops located on a busy downtown corner. It was a window-filled space and much cleaner and brighter than the mattress department at their large warehouse store.

By the entry, there was a pillow display, with plenty of accessories, including pillows from two national brands and the store brand. Everything here looked neat and clean, and a full box of pillow protectors was at the ready. The same wall signage as their other store explained how to select a pillow and begin shopping.

The store appeared empty, but we craned our necks and spotted an RSA seated at a desk with two customers in the far back corner.

The store had a cozy but cool feeling thanks to glowing lamps on bedside tables, paired with urban/industrial concrete floors and exposed ceiling rafters and ductwork.

The store held 25 beds Each had a headboard sign providing the model name, a bulleted list of product features and each bed’s comfort level — firm, medium or plush.

All beds were displayed on adjustable bases and, after reading the big sign on how to choose a mattress, we grabbed our pillow of choice and prepared to start rest-testing beds on our own. After a while, though, we again began to feel neglected, especially considering our previous experience at their other store.

At about that point, when we were going to walk out, the RSA rushed from the back. Hurriedly, he told us all beds are labeled for comfort and that we should feel free to give them a try. He didn’t introduce himself or advise us to return later.

A warmer welcome, a minute of his time (instead of 20 seconds) and some idea of when he’d be free would have made a world of difference. We could see he was the only salesperson on duty and would have been happy to go out for a cup of coffee and return. In fact, there are two coffee shops in a short walking distance from his store. We would have returned if we felt he had wanted us to.

Interestingly, we were still sitting in our car in front of the store, when his other customers left. If the RSA had come looking for us, or looked out a window he could have invited us back in and possibly made a sale. But he didn’t.

Online: Discount furniture retailer

This retailer has an appealing website that is clean, uncluttered and easy to navigate. Clicking the “Mattresses” button in the main menu takes you to a page whose heading emphasizes the retailer’s low prices.

The bedding department landing page highlights the fact that products are made locally and says prices are low because they are not name brands. Both of these points are important to me, as I tried to buy American-made goods and am not a name-brand shopper.

Running across the top of the page is a helpful list of sleep-related problems — back pain, insomnia, snoring, fatigue, sleep hot, allergies, etc. — illustrated with cute emoticons. The header reads, “We have the solution.”

Scrolling down, there are customer reviews running across the bottom of the screen and there are reviews on the product pages as well. I would guess the reviews are curated because all products average four-star or five-star ratings, but I could be wrong.

The mattress selection online was much more limited than in the store (14 mostly store-brand mattresses). The price range reflected the same range we found at their retail stores. But it’s unlikely I’d purchase a mattress online from this seller. It’s too risky since they clearly state they don’t accept product returns or give credits.

This seller hasn’t claimed its Google knowledge panel, so there are no customer reviews of it in the righthand column on search results pages. The seller’s reputation on Yelp is definitely not an asset. Two store locations are represented there and they average two stars and two-and-a-half stars, respectively, from more than 800 reviewers. Most of the gripes appear to be about furniture product quality.

It has a popular Facebook Page with tens of thousands of followers and plenty of posts, many of them showcasing new products.

Over at YouTube, the retailer has created a lot of original content at its very busy channel that has thousands of subscribers, dozens of videos and millions of views. Some of them are fun to watch and have the viewer counts to prove it. A key theme is everyday low prices.

Report Card: Discount furniture Retailer

PLUSES

  • The easy-to-read headboard signs on every bed illustrating comfort and key features
  • Clean, cozy sleep shop in a convenient downtown location
  • A limited selection of mattresses that doesn’t overwhelm you, but hits price points we can afford

MINUSES

  • Lack of assistance despite two visits to two different stores on quiet weekday afternoons
  • The mattress department in the larger furniture store location was uninviting due to untidiness and the fact that beds were gray from dirt and wear.
  • While we are fine with purchasing a mattress that has no comfort guarantee, the idea of buying from a retailer that accepts no returns, ever, is off-putting and the policy feels out of step with the times.

Store 3: Locally owned sleep shop has calming atmosphere, convincing owner

When we walked into this store on a sunny afternoon we were soothed by the soft lighting; it felt like the perfect napping room. There also was an enormous saltwater fish tank near the entrance with a mesmerizing collection of live coral and brilliantly colored fish. We love fish tanks. Next to that, was a counter with stools and snacks.

The store is part of a small family owned chained and this suburban location was a hard to see in a nondescript commercial strip. The general area was a very large, high-traffic shopping district. To find the store, we definitely needed our map app and we still drove right by.

There was soothing music playing and a pleasant scent in the air. The narrow, deep space was neatly arranged and the walls held flat screens showing various programming, some bubbling water features that looked like framed fountains, little floor lamps that were glowing columns of light, as well as one major brand’s wall unit display with video screen.

My husband made a stop in the store’s bathroom and came out with a smile saying it was beautiful in there! (He didn’t have the same reaction at another retailer’s sloppy restroom.)

All in all, with its neat accessories, mattress displays and decor, the store looked inviting. It seemed like a place you’d want to hang out for awhile. And the owner was indeed hanging out with one of his suppliers at the snack counter when we walked in.

He greeted us, introduced himself, and even introduced us to his other visitors. We all chatted and then the other visitors (suppliers) left. The owner then launched into a brief explanation of why he founded his store and how long he had been in the business, and how passionate he was about helping people find the right mattress. We liked him and enjoyed speaking with him.

The store had 35 beds, organized by brand. It was an interesting selection. Fifteen were a recognized name brand, two were lesser known specialty brands, including a large group of latex and latex hybrid beds, all from one maker. About one-quarter of the floor was a store brand.

The owner asked how we found the store, adding that many people come in because of the store’s high ranking on Yelp.

Then, he asked what we were currently sleeping on and what our budget was. At that point the owner told us he offered interest-free and zero-down financing.

With our selected pillows and pillow protectors, he suggested we try about five to six beds on the floor. Most were hybrid models with springs and foam or latex. I was curious about latex beds and we tried a few of the models. He told us all about the latex bed collection he carried and discussed the benefits of latex.

He also urged us to try a new all polyurethane foam bed on the floor paired with an adjustable base. This was after I had asked some questions about that interesting-looking model. But, ultimately, we passed on the idea of an adjustable base, and the mattress was out of our price range.

While we tested different mattress models, he described various product features, without overwhelming us with information. One bed had a cooling fabric, another had special innersprings with a stronger seat edge, etc. He encouraged us to change positions on the beds and spend some time on each one.

He left us alone each time, going off to another part of the store, and giving us several minutes to check out the bed and talk privately.

During the rest-testing, I appreciated the store’s soft lighting and the sound of trickling water from the various water features around the room. It did help to calm me when trying to get comfortable.

Another thing I liked was the mattress pricing which, although hidden on a slide-out card in the foot guard, was in large type that I could read without glasses. And, there were just a couple of prices on bed. Adjustable bases were priced separately.

At the conclusion of our visit, we told him we needed to think about it and he told us, “no problem” and gave us his card.

Online: Local Sleep Shop

The website does a good job of communicating the trustworthy personality of the store and its owner that we experienced for ourselves while shopping there. Across the top of the site, there are professionally produced video testimonials from satisfied customers from all walks of life. You then scroll down and read that its sales staff is salaried, not commissioned. (When we were in the store the owner told us the same and said his sales staff are well paid and loyal.) Then you can read a section about boxed beds and how one size doesn’t fit all. The company offers a range of store-brand boxed beds in different comforts and prices.

The website also gives plenty of space to sleep accessories. The online experience was a good reflection of what we found when we went into the store, in terms of selection and the retailer’s ethos.

Of the three stores we visited, this retailer seems to make the most of social media and review sites. Its online reputation is carefully cultivated and promoted. Its five-star reputation at Yelp is impressive, as is the number of reviewers it has garnered. The store also has claimed its Google knowledge panel and populated it with lots of pictures, posts and store information. (Companies that claim their knowledge panel, can post content in it much like they can in Facebook.) The panel has attracted a healthy number of reviewers, too, and, as at Yelp, the store has earned a five-star rating.

The owner regularly creates videos about his store and its mission, which are posted to the retailer’s YouTube channel. Other social media accounts that show up on the first page of search results for this retailer include its Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles.

Report Card: Local Sleep Shop

PLUSES

  • We didn’t feel pressured to buy and we felt listened to.
  • Great environment for rest-testing — sounds, smells and lighting were all calming.
  • We weren’t watched closely while we shopped and felt free to try whichever beds caught our fancy, instead of just the ones recommended by the owner.
  • An emphasis on latex mattresses that we didn’t find anywhere else.

MINUSES

  • A more prominent store sign for this location would be helpful. We drove right by the store because even with a map app the store was easy to miss.
  • When navigating the company’s website, I missed the top left hamburger main menu when trying to find the products page. So, I did a lot of scrolling and clicking before drilling down to the company’s mattress collections.

Observations and verdict

  • We began this shopping trip with a big misconception about the cost of a new bed. Sticker shock set in when we realized that a mattress we really liked and both found comfortable could easily set us back $2,000, for a mattress only.
  • All three retailers had excellent websites and product selections that could have satisfied our needs, but at two of them our in-store experiences left us dissatisfied.
  • We were happy the three retailers had pricing right on the beds. But the numbers were in tiny print and tended to include at least four prices for each mattress, depending on what type of foundation you chose to go with it. We found that confusing.
  • The shopping landscape has really changed. House brands played a much larger role than they did on the store floors we have shopped in the past. At two of the three retailers we visited, more than half of the beds on their floors were house brands. And in many cases the national brands were not the familiar names we expected to see, either.
  • For any major purchase, we always do online research before going out to stores. When it comes to choosing a mattress, that tactic ended up being really important. These retailers all had great websites. They were well-designed and filled with so much useful information on products and pricing, return policies, warranties and delivery charges. Studying their websites first really helped us avoid a lot of in-store confusion we’d otherwise have faced — because who knew that buying a bed is more complex than purchasing a major appliance?
  • It felt as though Facebook has slid in importance as a source of reviews and commentary and been replaced by review site Yelp. Although all three retailers had Facebook Pages with plenty of followers, only one was keeping their page updated.
  • There were a lot of surprises in store for us on this shopping trip. In the end, we felt as though we’d stepped into Goldilocks and the Three Bears — from too little (store 2), to too much (store 1), to just right (store 3) — as we traveled along on this mattress shopping journey!