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Bed and Bored : Searching for the Right Mattress in a (Yawn) Sea of 'Pocketed Coil Systems' and 'Revolutionary Technology' Can Be Tiresome

March 26, 1994|MARY ANN HOGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Can I help you?" asks Bea the department store saleswoman, dwarfed in a wall-to-wall sea of mattress technology.

"We need a new bed," you say.

A big bed.

Big enough for two adults, one small-but-growing child, one baby who's just learned to roll, seven Dr. Seuss books, a laptop computer, two Sunday newspapers, a portable TV, a breakfast table and four pillows.

And a telephone.

A favorite song of your small-but-growing child runs through your head: "There-were-four-in-the-bed, and-the-little-one-said, 'Roll over! Roll over!' So-they-all-rolled-over and one-fell-out. Plop. There-were-three-in-the-bed . . .' "

So it's not just a bed you're buying. It's a place to hang out for the next 10.8 years. Fittingly, the $4 billion bedding industry agrees. They don't just sell you a mattress. It's a mattress and box spring, also known as a "sleep set."

Never go to buy one alone, unless, of course, you live that way. So says the Better Sleep Council of Alexandria, Va. So you drag along the growing child, the second adult and the rolling baby for a morning of bed browsing.

"Take a look," says Bea, the sleep set saleswoman.

It's an ocean of sleep sets stripped down to their pale stitched floral outer coverings, which top the piles of inner "comfort layers," pocketed coil systems and hundreds of coils in the "revolutionary technology" of the continuous-wire spring unit.

Whew.

There's the superpremium, the ultrapremium, the Correct Posture Maxipedic. The Beautyrest Superb. The Posturpedic Concerto. The Crown Jewel. The Correct Comfort Deluxe.

You can go firm-firm, plain firm, soft-soft, plain soft, super support, plain support, all with varying density, thickness and choices of filler material.

The rolling baby begins to cry. You sit down on a soft-soft. You sigh.

*

The bed. Inevitable, immutable. The place where you go every night, come rain or shine or PostureTech Coil with patented Sensory Arm.

"It's the sine qua non ," says Alan Dundes, University of California, Berkeley, professor of anthropology. "It's basic. Bed and board. Bed and breakfast. You can do without a dining room table or you can set your books up with bricks and boards. But people need a place to sleep."

A place to recuperate. To spend roughly 220,000 hours, or approximately one-third of the average lifetime, or more if you count the VCR, the Seuss books and the Sunday papers.

And the telephone.

"King or queen?" Bea wants to know.

It is here, in the showroom, that it all happens.

This is where bed meets American marketing to plumb the singular psychology of the American mattress consumer. Think about it: The bed is the only piece of furniture that plays a pivotal role in every major life stage.

"It's where we play, create, love, conceive, convalesce and give birth," says Alecia Beldegreen, New York interior designer and author of "The Bed," a 1991 coffee-table pictorial history. "It's where we dream and where we die. It's where the entire human drama is enacted."

Swell. All of a sudden, you're not just buying a mattress. You're choosing a stage and sound system for your life.

In fact, Rossini composed operas in bed, Beldegreen says. "Proust wrote 'Remembrance of Things Past' in bed. Winston Churchill governed Britain from bed. French kings held court and issued edicts from bed."

Maybe Groucho Marx was right: Anything that can't be done in a bed isn't worth doing at all.

So let's see . . . if you hook up the laptop to the system at the office, sell the car, join the Internet, invest in an interactive phone system with fax machine and cappuccino maker, you'll never have to leave this comfort-option-laden corner of the Earth.

The song crescendos. " . . . and-the-little-one - said, 'Roll over! Roll over!' "

Bea the sleep set saleswoman reels you back to the mission at hand: Joining the ranks of Americans who last year purchased nearly 30 million adult-size conventional mattresses and box springs.

*

"Bedding is a very promotion-driven business," says a marketing executive from one of the leading U.S. mattress manufacturers. "People don't walk around in their normal day thinking about their mattresses. But then there's some trigger, usually a life event, like a change in family structure, a marriage, a move, a backache. The trigger establishes a need. Then the consumer is open to advertising."

And then, suddenly, all the world's a bed. Every newspaper seems to carry a 10% Bonus-Savings, Four-Days-Only! mattress sales (Plus Free Bed Frame!). Your friends don't just have beds, they have box spring dimensions. The freeway teems with Chevy Luvs transporting old ones to college-freshman apartment dwellers.

You start wondering about practical things, such as, just where did Louis XIV keep his 400-plus beds? How did he wash the sheets?

*

In the beginning, there were no choices.

There was only straw and animal hide. Later there were feathers and covers and pillows piled high--the higher the pillows, the more important the bed's occupant.

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