Why the Mid-Priced Mattress Is Getting No Love

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When navigating the spectrum of products in the marketplace, consumers naturally gravitate to the middle. The popular mid-price hotel category, for instance, is attractive to the masses who don’t want to skimp by staying at a sketchy motel, but who don’t want to blow money on an unnecessarily posh suite in a luxury resort either. No matter if we’re talking hotels, new cars, dinner entrees, salad dressings, house paint, or bottles of wine, consumers tend to feel comfortable selecting options in the middle—indicating they’re neither cheap nor profligate. So why is it that mattress sales are booming at the high and low end of the marketplace, while sales of beds in the mid-price range remain flat?

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune addresses this curious anomaly in the marketplace for mattresses:

While sales of all mattresses has grown at a healthy pace this year, the midline mattress market in the $699 to $1,500 range is sagging a bit, growing $26 million from 2009 to 2011. Low- and high-end beds enjoyed much loftier sales, with low-end mattress sales growing by nearly 10 times as much and high-end mattresses topping 15 times that amount, according to Tempur-Pedic.

What has emerged in recent years is essentially two separate markets for mattresses—one high, one low. For those considering the high end, top quality is the main, if not only, priority. When you’re using a product every day (or night, as it were), it becomes easier to justify the high cost of, say, a $3,000 mattress. (Over ten years’ time, that’s less than $1 per night.)

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On the other hand, now that Costco, Big Lots, Target, Sam’s Club, and other major retailers have gotten into the mattress market, competition has increased dramatically, especially in the lower price range. Consumers can rightly feel like they’re getting a decent mattress for $400. In which case: Why pay $800 or $1,000 for something that’s marginally better, or basically the same quality?

In a way, this prototypical low-end mattress buyer actually is deciding on a mid-range product—only it’s the mid-range for the lower end market, which starts as cheap as $99. Cheapism.com’s Mattress Buying Guide advised:

Mattress reviews say the very cheapest mattresses — i.e., in the $200 range — aren’t worth buying, nor are the no-name brands that you find at discount warehouse sales.

So the shopper who buys a $400 mattress can feel like he’s not cheaping out with a $200 mattress, while feeling good and value-conscious that he’s also not unnecessarily dropping $800 or more. Because there is such a wide spectrum of mattress prices, from the very high to the curiously low, the middle ground seems to be considered no-man’s land by consumers. It offers neither the value of the lower end products, nor the quality of the high end.

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Because of the unusually wide range of mattress products and pricing, “the middle gets hollowed out while the action is at the top and the bottom,” George John, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, explained to the Star-Tribune.

The problem with determining which mattress offers the best value—and this is part of what makes mattress shopping a painful experience—is that personal reviews are highly subjective (everyone’s back is different, and how many consumers really test out enough products to give an expert opinion?), mattress makers are constantly confusing consumers by switching up model names and brands, and stores utilize pricing and discount systems based on unrealistically inflated original sticker prices that no one ever pays.

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Even with all the confusion—much of it created purposefully by mattress manufacturers and sellers—you can “rest assured” these words from a Consumer Reports story on mattresses are true:

You don’t necessarily have to spend top-dollar to get a good night’s sleep.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.