By John Pierson Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
Not all the best things in life are free — a good night’s sleep, for example.
Many mattresses cost a lot of money, and some cost a whole lot. The question is whether there is a discernible benefit to be derived from the added expense.
Mattress makers disagree on the answer, depending on their specialty. In fact, consensus in the industry seems limited to the notion that people sleep best on a mattress with a firm center sandwiched between softer “comfort” layers — a departure from the long-held dictum that the best bed is a hard bed. Andrea Herman, director of the Better Sleep Council, an industry group based in Alexandria, Va., sees a gradual awakening from a “Puritan heritage” that equated enduring discomfort — a hard bed — with virtue.
Science tells us little about how sleep surfaces affect sleep. Studies conducted with Stanford University students in the 1960s have been discredited because students tend to be sleep-deprived and thus can sleep on anything. “We have very little or no data relating sleep to different types of beds,” says Thomas Roth, head of sleep-disorders medicine at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital.
Despite the lack of science, theories abound about how to build a better bed. A visit to Shifman Mattress Co., in Newark, N.J., shows what goes into products at the high end of the market. Shifman produces handmade mattress-and-box-spring sets in all sizes. As is the case throughout the industry, its best-selling size is queen; and most of Shifman’s queen-size sets sell in the $800-to-$1,700 range — at least twice the industry average of $400 to $700.
Shifman has been making its mattresses for 103 years, 78 of those years in the same brick building, which is somewhat the worse for wear. Today, the company’s 35 craftsmen — many of Portuguese descent — turn out mattress-and-box-spring sets at the rate of one every 8 1/2 hours, a snail’s pace compared with the average in the highly automated mattress industry: one every 40 minutes.
Shifman sells its products through 60 retail stores in the Northeast, the best known of which is New York’s Bloomingdale’s. The company’s products are also sold under two private labels. “My approach is it doesn’t matter how much they cost so long as the quality is better,” says Shifman’s president, Mike Hammer, who bought the company in 1985 after 22 years with industry giants Simmons and Stearns & Foster.
Most mattresses made today include substantial amounts of synthetics. Picking down through the layers of most Shifman mattresses, however, you encounter cotton, wool and perhaps hog hair; in fact, only one Shifman model, designed for customers demanding extra firmness, contains layers of man-made material (Dacron).
All Shifman mattresses are tufted, or bound together with nylon twine that a worker, starting with a double slipknot, threads top to bottom and back again with 24-inch steel needles, tying another knot at the end. The tufting keeps the materials inside from shifting and gives the mattress surface a dimpled look. On conventional mattresses the top and bottom surfaces are quilted by machine; the quilting thread reaches no deeper than 2 inches into the foam.
The separate box spring uses the kind of large upholstery springs that are found in fine furniture. These are held in place by Italian hemp twine, hand tied to the top of each spring at eight points of the compass.
“We talk about 30 to 40 years of use for a Shifman. The industry talks about 10 years,” says Mr. Hammer. “I admit this is overkill.”
But the company’s products are by no means the most expensive on the market. Dux of Sweden makes a bed by hand that uses three times as many springs as a conventional bed and can fetch up to $5,200 for a queen-size Dux Pascal, a box spring and inner spring mattress topped with layers of cotton and natural latex. Dux makes its beds in Sweden but has outlets in the U.S.
Also from Sweden but available in this country is the Tempur-Pedic “pressure-relieving” mattress and pillow, made of high-density visco-elastic foam, which responds to body heat by becoming soft and molding itself to the body’s shape. The queen mattress by itself sells for $1,300, the pillow for $90 and a wood-and-steel foundation for $170.
Hastens of Sweden uses cotton, wool, flax and lots of horsehair; a top-of-the-line set close to queen-size sells for the equivalent of $5,700. Switzerland’s Matra AG has designed a bed using convex, flexible wooden slats, on top of which is a latex mattress. The price of a top-of-the-line queen Swissflex (with electric controls) is $12,700.
Does throwing more money at a mattress mean better sleep? Dial-A-Mattress Operating Corp., based in Long Island City, N.Y., thinks not. The company makes a profit buying from big manufacturers like Sealy Corp., Investcorp SA’s Simmons Co. and Serta Inc., leaving the labels on and selling by phone — all of which makes for a high-volume, low-cost operation. Its top seller is a Serta that sells for about $400 in a queen set.
The industry seems largely uninterested in scientific scrutiny of its products. James Walsh, director of sleep medicine at St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis, recently approached the Better Sleep Council with a request to fund an academic study relating sleep to mattresses. The request was rejected.
The council’s Ms. Herman says that decision was based on the industry’s belief that mattresses already enjoy “very high consumer satisfaction,” and its concern that testing would “inevitably influence the competitive balance” among different mattress brands.