Cliff Crawford, a medical student at Howard University, first heard the mattress ads on the radio.
"They had nice catchy jingles, and I needed a mattress for my new platform bed," he said. "So I went to the store advertising the brand name mattresses at bargain prices to see what I could find. But they had very few of the type they were advertising--and the advertised brands they did have were either so flimsy that I wouldn't have them or they were very, very expensive."
Crawford said the salesman then tried to switch him to an off-brand mattress. "He made a telephone call to someone and then told me he could knock $10 off the price if I would take it. He was very high-pressure. He tried to get me to buy very quickly. He wanted me to pay immediately, tie the mattress on the roof of my car and drive off with it."
Instead, Crawford walked out without buying anything.
"But it was very hard to leave the store," he said. "And when I did, the salesman acted very disgusted with me."
Crawford believes his experience is a classic example of the "bait-and-switch" selling that has triggered complaints from consumers and from companies in recent days as the competition in Washington's mattress war has intensified.
The war--in which a proliferation of stores are aggressively trying to capture more sales--has brought a blitz of advertising, reduced prices and charges of questionable sales tactics, including illegal bait-and-switch schemes.
Among the companies voicing concern about the problem is Sealy Mattress Co. of Maryland & Virginia Inc., which makes Sealy Posturepedic, the best-selling mattress in America.
Fred Rohe, Sealy's vice president of sales, said, "Bait and switch isn't fair to the consumer, and it isn't fair to the manufacturer. It is a very deceitful practice to use the manufacturer's name to bring the consumer into the store, then switch him to a lesser brand in order to pad the pocketbook of the seller."
Rohe and others at Sealy believe so strongly about the issue that the company published a public service announcement last week in the Montgomery County Journal to explain to readers how to spot bait-and-switch operations.
The announcement had a large headline saying, "If it's 'on sale' it's for sale, right? You could be wrong." Beneath that were several paragraphs, including this one:
"The 'bait-and-switch' operator doesn't really want to sell you the Sealy Posturepedic he advertises at a very low price. That's the 'bait.' The 'switch' is easy to spot when you visit the store. He will attempt to tear down the reputation of the sale product or tell you it's out of stock; then, try to switch you to a lesser-known brand on which he makes more money. Obviously, he doesn't feature the 'off' brand in his ads because it wouldn't attract shoppers to his store."
The announcement advises customers to walk out of bait-and-switch traps, spread the word to their friends and inform the proper consumer protection agency.
But while bait-and-switch appears to be the main problem at the moment, it isn't the only one bothering mattress shoppers.
Here is what happened to Eugene Blake, an electronics technician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When Blake went shopping for a twin-mattress set for his daughter's bedroom, he found exactly what he wanted. So he paid $167 on the spot and asked that it be delivered as soon as possible.
But what the store sent to his Silver Spring home, Blake said, wasn't the mattress for which he had paid. When he called the store to report the mix-up, he was told it was his mistake, not the store's. Blake has filed a complaint with the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs in the hope he can get either a refund or the mattress he wanted.
In the meantime, he said, he is "pretty upset about this."
Another problem for consumers buying mattresses--whether they go to a specialty store, a chain outlet or a department store--is that they often can't tell by looking which mattresses are better than others because the inner construction isn't visible.
As a result, Jim Wells, vice president of marketing for Woodward & Lothrop, advises shoppers to "buy from someone you trust and take their word for it."