Secret Shopper: The Good, the Bad and the Buggy

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In this issue’s installment, our secret shoppers — a senior couple living along the Gulf Coast — visit three stores for new mattresses and generally have enjoyable experiences. Here’s why

secret shopper shopping bag

Every day as a mattress retailer, you help couples find a mattress that will give each person the support and comfort necessary for a good night’s sleep. Although it’s routine, satisfying the requirements of two shoppers, sometimes with widely divergent opinions, isn’t easy.

For this issue’s Undercover*, we sent a retired couple living in a Gulf Coast retirement community out mattress shopping. The husband and wife sleep on a decade-old pillow-top set for most of the year. In the summers, they head north to the Great Lakes region, where they have a memory foam mattress. They say it’s newer than their innerspring model but is dipping in the middle and weakening along the edges. Both master bedroom mattresses are due for replacement, they say, and the wife also has been thinking about buying a new queen-size bed, or maybe two twins, for the guest room. But they acknowledge that, without our prompting, they would have waited longer to start shopping.

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 large regional sleep chain, a factory direct and a locally owned sleep shop. They spent about an hour at each store and also visited each retailer’s website to evaluate the ease of online shopping. Read on to learn valuable lessons from their shopping experiences.


*Read our first Undercover report of 2019, which took a secret shopper to three mattress retailers in the Southeast. Later this year, we’ll send a secret shopper to grade retailers in the Plains.


Store 1: A good start fizzles at a boxy regional chain

With its sterile-looking exterior, this store was the least inviting of the three, and if we hadn’t been asked to visit, we probably wouldn’t have gone there on our own. The store, part of a large regional mattress chain located in a relatively new strip mall on a busy highway, had no landscaping to soften the parking lot or boxy building.

This was the largest of the three stores we visited, displaying about 60 queen-size bed sets from four national mattress brands. The interior walls were brightly colored and decorated with a few lifestyle posters, but otherwise the store was unadorned — no headboards or other furnishings, just row after row of mattresses.

The retail sales associate, who was seated at a sales desk near the rear, greeted us and walked to meet us at the front door. She was nicely dressed in slacks and a coordinating top. The RSA introduced herself, asked our names and then used them often during our visit. She quickly tried to establish a rapport by asking us a few questions about ourselves and then building on things we had in common as we talked. We liked her friendly, outgoing style.

This RSA did the best job of helping us narrow our selection. She asked us why we’d come into the store, why we needed a new mattress and if we were looking for a bed for the master bedroom or other room. I mentioned that I have back and shoulder troubles and also suffer from vertigo — I have to sit on the edge of the mattress for several seconds to steady myself before getting out of bed.

She told us a little about the brands the store carries and asked us to start by lying on two beds at the front of the store to see which felt most comfortable. She noted that with 60 mattresses in the store, it would be easy for us to get confused, so she would have us try only five or six mattresses and then narrow it down from there. We liked that plan because the store’s selection was too large and we had no idea where to start.

After telling her which of the first two beds we liked best, she had us try two others, asking each time for us to lie down in our usual sleeping position. As we sampled beds, she explained the difference between innerspring, hybrid and foam mattresses, although part of what she told us was confusing and contradictory.

“For fun” she suggested we try the most expensive bed on the floor, a split-king mattress on an adjustable base that she said cost $12,000 for the set. We couldn’t understand why. It didn’t feel any more comfortable than the $2,000 mattresses. Aside from mentioning the adjustable base with the pricey bed, she didn’t recommend we try power bases with other mattresses or mention them again.

At first glance, the store seemed clean and well-maintained, but we later noticed stains on the ceiling and while my wife was lying on one model, she saw specks of black on the mattress. The RSA said the store had been having trouble with bugs since the roof leaked. We were thankful the insects looked more like gnats than bedbugs!

Each bed had either two pillows or a bolster, but we saw no displays of pillows or sleep accessories in the store. When I mentioned feeling like I needed a thicker pillow to give my shoulders more room, the RSA hesitated, said, “Yeah, these pillows are awful” and then brought me one to try from another bed, but never said if any of the pillows — “awful” or not — were available for sale. At one point, my wife discovered, on her own, a box of pillow protector sheets near the front of the store and she grabbed two for us to use.

When my wife mentioned we also might be in the market for a new bed for our guest room, the RSA suggested we try a boxed bed, which was set up and displayed near the rear of the store, saying it was an excellent value at $499. We had to take her word on the price because we didn’t see a tag and, overall, the store’s pricing was confusing. Some beds didn’t have prices at all, and others were hidden under a panel at the foot of the bed. Also, they were inconsistent. Many mattresses were priced with two adjustable base options but others were priced as mattress only, which made comparisons hard.

We eventually said we would need time to think about our options. The RSA gave us her card, writing down the three models we were most interested in (two pillow-tops and a hybrid, all within a few hundred dollars of each other in terms of cost) and encouraged us to read Consumer Reports and online reviews for more information about the brands and mattress models. “When you come back on another day,” she suggested, “just look at those three beds you like best.”

Online: Regional Chain

The regional chain has a robust e-commerce site that lets shoppers browse mattresses by brand, construction, comfort, size, price, preferred sleeping position and other factors. The website includes prices for all mattresses, as well as detailed product information and a guide that places each mattress on a color-coded comfort scale. Some mattresses are sold with flat foundations (available in two heights); others are sold as mattress only.

The retailer’s website has equally informative and easy-to-shop sections for adjustable bases, as well as sections for items we did not see in the store, including platform bases and pillows.

A few products, the website says, can be shipped nationwide. For other items, shoppers are asked to provide a ZIP code and, if they are within a service area, told a staff member will follow up to schedule delivery.

One flaw in an otherwise strong site: While searching, I encountered some 404 “page not found” error messages.

Report Card: Regional Chain

Pluses

+ Guided process for narrowing mattress choices

+ Excellent greeting

+ Personable retail sales associate

Minuses

Confusing, hidden and missing prices

No pillow fitting

Bugs!



Store 2: Factory direct offers visibly different mattresses

If you weren’t headed to this factory direct or already visiting the large strip mall where it’s located, you might never see it. The shopping center was set slightly off the road, and the store wasn’t listed on its marquee sign. The strip center was older but well-maintained, with mature trees and a planter of bright seasonal flowers in front of the mattress store.

The factory direct was the smallest of the three stores we visited, displaying about 20 mattresses. Because of the scale, we found it to be less intimidating and overwhelming than the others. The interior also had the most coordinated look, with a soothing, neutral color palette. All beds were displayed with headboards, which were for sale, and outfitted with two pillows and a foot protector, all pristine and lined up just so. Display buns sat at the foot of each bed, helping the RSA to explain components and constructions.

When we arrived, the RSA who was seated at a back desk quickly walked to the front of the store to welcome us, saying, “I know you’re in a mattress store, but what brought you in today?” He was friendly and, although he didn’t introduce himself by name, was wearing a name tag so we could address him.

He then led us to a demonstration area to show how his company makes mattresses differently from some other manufacturers and answered questions we had along the way. His presentation was easy to understand, and I appreciated that he talked about the positive features of his company’s beds without bashing competitors. After the short presentation, the RSA explained how mattresses in the store were grouped by construction — innerspring and foam models in separate rows and mattresses on adjustable bases together in another row. My wife liked that this store sells two-sided mattresses (we regularly flip our pillow-top), and a display of twin-size mattresses made her think more about trading out the queen-size bed in our guest room for two twins that could be pushed together for couples.

The RSA didn’t direct us to any particular mattresses, but as we tried different models on our own, he explained the benefits of both traditional innerspring mattresses and foam models. He didn’t seem to be leading us to one type over the other, which I appreciated, but I have to admit that much of what he said about foam types and densities went over our heads. As we narrowed our selection, he told us, “If you like two mattresses and they feel similar to you, get the one that’s less expensive.” That’s the kind of thing we like to hear!

Of all three stores, the factory direct had the clearest prices, all shown in the same format and in the same large print on every foot protector, which made comparisons easy. Each mattress was priced with a flat foundation and as a mattress only. Adjustable-friendly mattresses included power base pricing, too. The RSA pointed out a floor model that was sale priced, but didn’t mention any other promotions.

As at the other stores we visited, there was an orderly display of pillows, sheets and protectors at the back. When my wife brought up the subject of bedbugs (although I can’t recall why she did that), the RSA mentioned the value of buying a mattress protector and, when I told him one of the pillows on a particular bed felt good, he encouraged me to carry it with me as I tried other mattresses. Otherwise, he didn’t mention sleep accessories.

And, although the RSA pointed out the store’s display of adjustable bases early in our visit, he didn’t encourage us to try one until I asked to do so. He told us he sleeps on one but didn’t push us to consider an adjustable for ourselves.

During the initial presentation, he explained that the factory direct offers box-spring foundations and showed us how those differ from all-wood foundations and, later, demonstrated how to assess our current foundation to see if it needs to be replaced along with our mattress. Essentially, he said, we need to look for dips in the center.

As we narrowed our choices to two similarly priced pillow-top mattresses and told him we needed time to think, he gave us his business card and a store information sheet, and suggested we visit the factory direct’s website. We were surprised when he went so far as to recommend a particular RSA to seek out if we planned to shop a nearby competitor, adding that she often sends customers his way. The gesture made him appear genuinely interested in helping us find the right mattress, even if we didn’t buy it from him.

Online: Factory Direct

Of the three retailers, the factory direct has the nicest, most modern-looking website, with videos showing how its beds are made. The e-commerce site allows shoppers to sort mattresses by collection, size and design, and then places each mattress on scales for comfort, support and durability. One nifty feature: A product comparison lets you evaluate a selection of mattresses against one another.

With each mattress, shoppers are asked to choose a flat foundation (two profiles are available). Adjustable bases are sold separately. Shoppers also can buy headboards and other sleep accessories through the site. Although the website is set up for online shopping, a note on each mattress product description page encourages shoppers to visit a nearby store because comfort is a “personal choice.”

I liked that the website includes several customer reviews for most items — far more than I found on the other two retailers’ sites — which allowed me to read other people’s opinions without having to search all over the internet.

Report Card: Factory Direct

Pluses

+ Clearly differentiated mattresses

+ Prominent, consistent pricing format

+ Two-sided mattresses

Minuses

Inadequate adjustable base presentation

No pillow fitting

No accessories presentation



Store 3: Sleep shop scores a few hits but more misses

We’ve driven past this sleep shop, located just a mile from our house, many times. It was in a small, new shopping strip, with attractive trees and shrubbery throughout the parking area and near the store entrance. The store itself was exceptionally clean and well-maintained. The walls looked freshly painted and were unadorned — no artwork or promotional posters. A small TV hung on one wall, repeating a video of mattress production.

When we entered the store, the RSA, who was casually but neatly dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, was helping another customer. He greeted us warmly and told us he would be with us “in a minute.” Another store employee, whose role was never clear to us, was seated at a sales desk in the back, but did not welcome us or offer to assist us. (More on him later.)

As my wife and I walked around, I counted about 30 queen-size mattresses from three major national brands. Like the store itself, the mattresses were pristine, with attractive branded foot protectors and two pillows neatly placed atop each bed. Mattress sets were paired with different headboards, also apparently for sale although I saw no price tags and the RSA never asked if we were interested in a new headboard. I didn’t see any boxed mattresses.

When the RSA finished with the previous customer, who left without purchasing a mattress, saying “You’re confusing me” as the RSA tried to explain bed set pricing to her, the RSA joined us. He chatted amicably but didn’t ask us any specific questions, other than what size mattress we need. My wife and I continued to wander around, testing beds. As we tried different models, the RSA would tell us if it was “soft” or “firm,” and he explained the difference between memory foam and innerspring mattresses. Throughout the process, he encouraged us to lie down in the position we typically sleep in and “to get comfortable.” We never felt rushed. There didn’t seem to be any formal process for helping us find a mattress, so we continued to try models haphazardly.

During the course of our conversation, I mentioned my back and shoulder problems, as well as my vertigo. It was a chance for the RSA to introduce us to an adjustable base, but he didn’t. However, talk of my health problems piqued the interest of the store employee sitting at the desk, and he and I spent several minutes talking about surgical options.

While chatting with that employee, I noticed an organized display of pillows, mattress protectors and sheets at the back of the store. But we were never fitted with pillows, and when I asked about them, the RSA said only that if we bought a particular mattress brand, we would get a credit that could be used for pillows.

I eventually asked about adjustable bases. We were shown a basic and a step-up version. When my wife asked about buying a new flat foundation, the RSA said, “If your mattress is worn out, your base probably is worn out, too,” and explained the difference between a box spring (“today’s mattress models don’t need it,” he said) and a wood foundation, the only type of flat base the store sells.

During our conversation, the RSA mentioned that all prices were on the foot of each bed. In fact, not all the beds had prices. For those that did, prices were on the foot protector, but shown differently on different beds. We understood the other customer’s confusion.

Eventually, my wife and I winnowed our choices to a pillow-top much like the one we already own and a memory foam like we have at our summer house. The RSA told us he sleeps on a memory foam and definitely touted its benefits over our other choice. Even though he said our ultimate decision should be based on “what feels more comfortable,” I felt like he was pushing us toward the memory foam, which cost nearly $1,000 more. A sign promoted financing options but the RSA didn’t mention them.

When we told the RSA we had just started mattress shopping and needed to think about our options, he mentioned that the store’s current sale would be ending that day, but I didn’t feel like it was a hard-sell maneuver, just a factual point. As we prepared to leave, I asked the RSA for his business card. It was only then that we learned his name.

Online: Sleep Shop

The sleep shop’s website made it easy to research and compare mattresses based on a variety of factors, including brand, construction, comfort, size and price. Mattress descriptions are thorough. Prices (mattress only) are listed for most models, although for some, the website instructs shoppers to call for a quote. For all mattresses, shoppers are asked to provide a ZIP code to confirm availability. If I were to buy online, I would have the option of in-store pickup or delivery.

The website provides similarly comprehensive information about headboards and other sleep accessories — far more information than we received in-store about those products.

One glaring problem: The website has detailed product information about adjustable bases (“Call today for pricing”) but I couldn’t figure out how we would buy a flat foundation if we purchased a mattress online. In fact, I didn’t find any information at all about flat foundations on the store’s site.

Report Card: Sleep Shop

Pluses

+ Attractive, clean new store

+ Friendly retail sales associate

+ Good selection of mattresses and bases

Minuses

No formal or logical rest-testing process

No pillow fitting

No accessories presentation



The verdict

Overall, our mattress shopping experience was pleasant. We didn’t feel pressured to buy, and each store had a nice selection of mattresses that fit our needs. The RSAs were welcoming and friendly, and the stores were clean and inviting — with the notable exception of the stained ceiling and bugs at the regional chain.

We eventually settled on two or three mattresses at each store that we liked, but it took longer than it should have at the factory direct and sleep shop because we didn’t get enough direction and assistance from the RSAs.

Frankly, if we had been shopping on our own, we might have watched the Sunday circulars for sales, gone to a store close to our house and purchased a mattress from there. But after this experience, we would most likely purchase our next mattress set for our master bedroom at the factory direct. The store’s prices were considerably lower for what seemed like higher-quality products. We were less overwhelmed by its selection and appreciated that the company sells two-sided mattresses and box springs, which we’ve liked in the past. I should say, however, that it is a split decision. My wife liked the boxed bed from the regional chain and would consider it for our guest room.

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