It's a Mann's World: Mattress Madness

Olly Mann 2 November 2021

This month, a rare trip to a bed warehouse proves to be quite the experience for Olly

We’re getting a new mattress. I decided this after waking up with a bad neck and then a bad back. The alternative remedies (eat fewer carbs, lose weight, face the fact that getting gout and then a back condition might possibly point to a drinking problem) were too appalling to contemplate. So, we’re getting a new mattress.

I was further convinced this was the correct course of action when, looking back through my inbox, I deduced we had purchased our current bed in 2013. Eight years—the magic number! This triggered my internal monologue to replay all those ads I’d inadvertently absorbed: "It’s recommended to change your mattress every eight years." Recommended by whom? Not, perchance, the very fellows hoping to shill me a mattress?! It’s a long-term ad strategy, but it works—like that big billboard promoting our local undertaker.

I nearly did the millennial thing, and ordered online; being a podcaster, I almost felt obliged to use one of the "disruptor" brands who advertise exclusively on podcasts, including mine. “Delivered in a box, with a 30-day free trial!”, the script says. But don’t you have to actually lie down on a bed first, before deciding if you like it? And wouldn’t it feel tremendously wasteful to audition multiple mattresses in your own bedroom, and then summon a courier to pick up each unwanted one? Mightn’t you end up with a mattress you detest, out of sheer embarrassment?

So, we stomped off to our nearest "bed warehouse"—is there a less cosy, snuggly word in the lexicon than "warehouse"?—to investigate our options. It turns out the big retailers, eyeing the threat from the bed-in-a-box brigade, have responded by imposing a layer of dubious "artificial intelligence" over what should be a straightforward shopping experience. 

"Is there a less cosy, snuggly word in the lexicon than 'warehouse'"

Illustration by Lauren Rebbeck

The manager, Mustafa, met us at the door (we’re not mattress VIPs, he just happened to be standing there) and led us over to some sort of experimental bed-computer, as one might expect to find in a Beverly Hills clinic. He inputted our vital statistics with deep seriousness, like a security officer at Gatwick.

"What age bracket are you, please?," he asked, gesturing at broad categories that seemed purpose-designed so we didn’t have to shriek "FORTY!" out loud. "The middle one," I conceded. "Do you sleep mostly on your side, or your back?," was his next question; to which I thought, how would I know, I’m asleep?, but answered with, "a bit of both?." He nodded sagely and did some more button-pushing. 

"And which of you sleeps on the left, and who on the right?". He looked me up and down as I responded, tilted his head, and tapped a top secret code into the touchscreen, which presumably translated as "husband fat, wife thin." Then he invited us to lie down.

There was a TV screen on the ceiling above us; this made me feel like one of Peter Stringfellow’s conquests. A video played, supposedly occupying us while the bed-computer "calibrated" our profile, but which was evidently intended to impart some soft-sell messaging, masquerading as pop psychology: "Did you know you spend half your life in bed?," that sort of thing. Oh yes, and the Eight Years message again. "It’s recommended to change your mattress every eight years." I know! I know.

"It’s not often you get a lie-down in a retail park"

After this process, which was admittedly rather reviving (it’s not often you get a lie-down in a retail park)—Mustafa guided us over to the bed that the algorithm had "chosen" for us, based on our "information". Stop press: the bed was not in the sale (despite the fact that the "sale" seemingly included everything else in the store, and began the day the dinosaurs died).

Mustafa talked us through the three types of filling: pocket sprung (too springy), memory foam (too foamy), and then, what fresh hell is this? pocket sprung with a "cooling gel topper". I had no idea "toppers" were even a thing, and definitely hadn’t known that I wanted one, but on trying it out, it seemed the most comfortable. Slowly, I was talked into buying one. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the most expensive!

You’re a walking wallet in a bed warehouse. Ordinary punters have no hope of knowing when we’re being fleeced. I mean, put me in the tech section of a department store, and I can assess whether the innovations on offer are pointless trinkets or life-changing innovations. Place me in a Menswear section, and I know which styles match my taste. But, a bed warehouse? A shop I only visit once a decade? I have no context. I don’t know whether a "topper" is a frivolous addendum, like a slushie maker, or a crucial bit of apparatus, like a Magimix. 

After some amateurish haggling on my part, Mustafa sold us yet more (pillows, a mattress protector, an entirely pointless insurance scheme), but with a seemingly generous discount, thereby creating the illusion we were getting a bargain, despite us spending more; and we left, £1,500 lighter. He’s good, that Mustafa. I’ll tell him so, in another eight years' time.

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