Why I Didn't Buy a Mattress Online

By Alex Cranz on at

The delivery mattress industry is booming. Makers of foam wrapped in fabric, like Casper and Simba, are raking in millions each year convincing people the convenience of an all online and salesperson-free experience is worth it. Generally I am inclined to agree. I feel like I’m going to break out in hives when I make eye contact with a sales assistant in PC World or that one lotion man in House of Fraser. But some things cannot and should not be purchased on the internet. And the mattress is one of those things.

The internet transmits audio and visual data really well. If you’ve got the right device it can even transmit spacial data. I can boot up the Wayfair app on my iPhone X and know exactly how a new bed will look in my bedroom. App makers can virtually render fabric and let you see what it looks like under your favourite lamp. You can even sort of try on clothes!

But right now the internet is really bad at conveying tactile data. In order to do it in any way that approximates the feeling of being in the room with an object you need a VR headset, a whole bunch of sensors and wires, and access to some really smart programmers. And in the end all of those wires and gadgets are really barriers to feeling what it is you were after.

This comes up any time a friend asks me what keyboard they should buy. Like a mattress, the right keyboard is best understood after you test a few out. But with keyboards I can just buy a few, returning and keeping the boards as necessary. They stack up neatly in the closet when not in use, or can be loaned out to friends when they’re curious about a particular switch.

It’s a little harder to do that with a mail-order mattress. I could, theoretically, poll everyone I know about their online mattress choice and then go to their homes to test them out. Or I could, you know, walk into a mattress store, where ALL the mattresses are, and lie on them.

So that’s one big mark against the Casper way of mattress buying. The other has to do with the reviews. You can’t trust most of them.

As the editor in charge of reviews at Gizmodo I’m intimately familiar with what makes a good review and what makes a bad one, and frankly I like reading them before making a buying decision myself! I’ve bought plenty of furniture based on the ratings at Overstock or Wayfair. When I buy a TV that we haven’t tested here, I will happily read up on it at Wirecutter and CNET. I even skim the reviews before buying new shoes.

A good review should be one of many from the reviewer, so you can go back and get a sense of their taste and understand how it pairs with your own. The reviewer should also be relatively free of financial influences — which means a clear wall between editorial and sales. I should be able to trust a review without worrying that the maker of the product, say, owns the review site, or is suing the site for a review. As reported in this FastCo story Casper was so fed up with the reviews from one site, Sleepopolis, it actually sued the review site and then settled — around the same time the site was sold to a company funded by Casper itself.

This is why, typically, the reporters reviewing the product have zero involvement with the people handling the affiliate link programs. We keep things very separate so some sweet affiliate deal with a big company does not influence what a reporter would write.

Mattress blogs tend to be small one or two person teams and there is not as clear a barrier between to the halves of the business. That makes it a little harder for someone like me to actually trust those reviews. How could I be sure the reviewer’s feelings were genuine and not just the result of a really generous affiliate link program?

All this in mind, when it was time to upgrade the super budget mattress I bought in a snow storm in 2014 I had only a few options. I wanted something soft like a cloud with just enough support for my bad shoulder that it wouldn’t ache. So I could buy a mattress, plush untouched, from one of the online companies that seem to stalk me on Facebook, Instagram, and in the Google Ads slots on this very site, or I could suck it up, go old school, and just take my ass into a mattress store.

So I dragged my mother, who was conveniently in town for a visit, to the stores with me. Mattress store employees continue to be some of the most aggressive salesmen short of the lotion guy at the mall, and having a mum buffer there to distract him with stories of rose bushes saved by Epsom salt was a major boon. But the biggest boon? The mattress store actually had a Casper too, so I got lay down on it and realise that no, an online mattress was definitely not for me.