How did America become a nation of mattress stores?

Part of the answer lies in the uniqueness of the product. “Only made distinct from mass-production by their defects (stains or loose springs), mattresses should be interchangeable and disposable,” Dholakia said. But they’re not. For one thing, mattresses fit the common archetype of the “consumer-durable product.” Like a television or a piece of furniture or a couch, they’re big, pricey, once-a-decade buying decisions; and since they come into intimate contact with your body, there’s widespread unwillingness to buy them used for fear of bedbugs or creepy stains. 

And in-person mattress shopping has long been considered the only reliable way to get one: Common sense told you tossing and turning like I was instructed to was the only way to choose right. I bought most of my other furniture on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, sight (save a grainy picture) unseen—but not my Mattress Firm. According to consumer surveys from Wedbush Securities, 65 percent of the population is similarly wary about buying a mattress without seeing it or trying it out first. And the International Sleep Products Association reports that 24 percent of buyers take three to seven days to research their mattress options.

But Dholakia also concluded that the profusion of mattress vendors is also about marketing: “They tend to locate where the consumer is already shopping,” he told the New York Times, “so they know when they go to shop for a mattress they will remember where they are located.”

The cheap-to-run stores—often planted next to big-box retailers in high-traffic areas—function in part as billboards for the brand. In a sense, actual mattress-selling is almost secondary to the broader mission: simply making people think about mattresses.