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How to buy a mattress online

A mail-order bed may seem crazy, but there are some big advantages to that option. Here's what you need to know.

tuft-and-needle-mattress

This mattress was delivered in my mailbox. Well, not quite, but it arrived in a surprisingly compact container.

Tuft and Needle

Have you ever gone mattress shopping in a store? That tends to be about as fun as car shopping, what with the countless confusing options, the often-pushy salespeople and the awkward "test drives." (Actually, I'll take driving with a stranger over lying fully clothed on a bed. In public. Repeatedly.)

It usually ends with, "Well, this one seems pretty comfortable, I guess." So you pull out the credit card and hope for the best, because there's often a hefty (non-refundable) delivery fee, a restocking fee and probably only 30 days to decide if you actually like the mattress.

And that's how you choose where you're going to spend one-third of your life? Nah. Time to consider another option -- namely, the internet.

Wait, what? Buy a mattress mail-order? I know, it sounds a little nuts, but if the price isn't enough to convince you, maybe the convenience will be. Let's take a look at what you should know when shopping for your next bed.

Disclaimer: CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.

Try after you buy

The big mattress-in-a-box companies -- and there are many, including Casper, Layla, Leesa, Nectar, Purple and Tuft & Needle -- all operate on the same basic principle: You order your mattress, it gets shipped to your door and you try it out for a set amount of time. If you don't like it, you can return it for a full refund.

Of course, within those parameters are some questions to consider.

What kind of mattress is it?

The reason the whole bed-in-a-box thing works is that most mail-order mattresses are made of memory foam, which means they can be compressed and rolled for easier shipping. Indeed, you might be surprised when you see the box it comes in. The usual reaction: "No way could an entire mattress be in there!"

But it is, and it will expand significantly once you open and unroll it. Just take note: If you're not accustomed to it -- meaning until now you've slept on a spring-based mattress -- be prepared for at least a few nights' worth of adjustment. Which brings us to the next question.

How long is the trial?

Most of the mail-order mattress companies give you 100 days to test their product. That's good, because it can take up to eight weeks for your body to fully adjust to a new sleep surface, according to mattress-maker Live and Sleep.

A few companies offer longer trial periods. Layla, for example, gives you 120 days, while Nectar offers an industry-leading 365 days. That may seem like overkill, but if you live someplace that has cold winters and hot summers, the extended return policy lets you experience sleep during all seasons.

What do these things cost?

nectar-mattress-deal

Nectar's current promotion includes two free memory-foam pillows.

Nectar

As you'd expect, prices can vary quite a bit. Below, a sampling: I've listed the current prices for each company's baseline mattress in a queen size. Nearly all of them had sales running, complete with urgency-minded countdown timers, so the pricing is definitely subject to change.

Casper Essential (Queen, mattress only): $600

See it at Casper

Layla (Queen, mattress only): $799

See it at Layla

Leesa (Queen, mattress only): $845

See it at Leesa

Nectar (Queen plus two pillows): $699

See it at Nectar

Purple Original (Queen plus pillow or platform base): $999

See it at Purple

Tuft & Needle (Queen, mattress only): $595

See it at Tuft & Needle

As you can see, a queen-size mattress will run you anywhere from $600 to 1,000. But prices can stretch even higher, as in the case of Casper's Wave model ($1,995 for a Queen) and Purple's All-New ($1,599).

What happens to your old mattress?

Ah, there's the rub. When you buy a mattress locally, the delivery guys will usually haul the old one away (either for free or for a small fee). Here, it's basically the UPS driver dropping a box on your porch.

If you do want help, however, some companies do offer it. Nectar, for example, has a White Glove service option that includes installation of the new mattress and removal of the old one. It's $149.

My advice: If you have the space, keep the old mattress until you're sure you like the new one. That way, if you end up returning the latter, you'll have a place to sleep until your next mattress arrives.

How do you return a mattress by mail?

Your mattress probably came shoehorned into a plastic tube and expanded immediately upon being freed from it -- never to reclaim that size or shape. So how can you possibly ship it back?

You may not have to. Many mattress companies actually prefer you to donate your mattress locally, and will issue you a full refund upon receiving a copy of the donation receipt. Thus, when you hear about "free pickup" as part of the return process, that may be from an organization like Purple Heart. The good news is that you probably won't have to try to cram the thing into a box and haul it to a shipping store.

Is there a charge to return a mattress?

Usually, no -- a big part of the appeal here is the no-fee return policy, which is offered by nearly all mail-order mattress companies. Needless to say, you'll want to fully investigate the policy before buying, just to avoid any unexpected gotchas.

Do you need a special bed frame to use a memory-foam mattress?

Not really, but the more support you can put under it, the better. Most companies recommend a bunkie board, plywood or slatted foundation (provided the slats are close together). A standard box-spring can be risky, because a bent or sharpened spring can easily puncture the mattress.

What else should you know?

Because mattresses are so subjective, it's not a good idea to rely on a single review when making your decision. Whenever possible, crowdsource your investigation: Ask friends and relatives for recommendations, look for Facebook fan groups (yep, they exist) and, most of all, take your time.

Because I'm a sucker for freebies, I recently ordered a full-size Nectar mattress -- which came with two free pillows -- for my 16-year-old. (It helped that it was one of the less-expensive options, too.)

It arrived inside a cardboard box containing a long, zippered case with handles, which made it easier to lug upstairs. From there we carefully cut open the plastic shell (using the included tool) and placed it on the bedframe. Done! Although we did notice a smell from the new mattress -- common with compressed foam -- it wasn't overwhelming and dissipated quickly.

It's definitely on the firmer side, especially compared with his previous spring mattress, but Junior says the Nectar is "very comfortable," and he likes it better than the old one. (That was about as much as I could get out of him. Teens, am I right?)

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