Mattresses are harder to come by, and when you find one it’s more expensive than it used to be. Here’s why.
Hey, it’s the Beducator, Jeff Scheuer. If you’ve been shopping for a mattress this past year, you’ve noticed that the prices have increased pretty dramatically since March of 2020. Now there are some real reasons for these prices increases, but there aren’t too many retailers or industry executives addressing this in detail. I would think that as a group we’d want to publicly justify the reasons for these price fluctuations. But I can’t say that transparency and honesty are two pegs upon which the mattress industry tends to hang its collective hat. So, let’s take a brief look at the chronology of how we got to where we are today.
After the first national lockdown in the spring of 2020, most sleep shops started to open up again around May. There was pent-up demand because of this shut down, plus many consumers had April stimulus cash burning a hole in their pockets. Mattress orders skyrocketed. Unfortunately, there was a shortage not only of finished mattresses, but also of the componentry contained within these finished mattresses. Now if you’ve taken basic economics, you understand how the supply-demand curve works. We had very low supply, and very high demand. The result was an increase in mattress prices.
Mattress componentry shortage was the major issue, specifically the non-woven materials used to both wrap pocketed springs and also for general mattress construction. This material was prioritized for PPE, so the result was a very large domestic pocket spring shortage. Latex foam rubber was in short supply because we couldn’t get the precursor material and we also had issues with staff and labor at the factories. Wood for foundations was also hard to come by. Just ask anybody building a house these days how they’re coming along with their wood (“That’s what she said,” Michael Scott, The Office). There was also limited supply of flexible polyurethane foam because the precursor chemicals, isocyanate and polyol, were in short supply. And in general, anything coming from overseas had their supply chains disrupted by Covid-19.
Now labor–specifically the lack and retraining thereof–also figured prominently into these delays and price increases. With the passage of the CARES Act and these extra funds being added to already existing state unemployment benefits, many workers on both the componentry and finished product end of the spectrum decided to stay at home, making more money collecting unemployment benefit than working. And to be fair to them, there are some componentry and finished product suppliers in our industry who have a bit of a notorious reputation for not paying so well, and many of these jobs were for unskilled workers. The decision of these employees to stay at home and not return to work wasn’t entirely unexpected. So, the overall lack of employees, the training of new employees, and the slower pace at which these replacement employees worked all resulted in less and more costly mattress production.
And on top of everything else, various covid protocols were put into place by local, state, and federal government agencies, further decreasing efficiency, reducing output, and increasing the cost of mattress and component production. Through the summer and fall of 2020, we still had shortages in steel, flexible polyurethane foam, lumber, and most importantly nonwoven materials. The component suppliers had no choice but to increase their prices to the mattress manufacturers. The mattress manufacturers in turn had to increase their prices to the retailers, and the retailers had to increase their prices to the consumer. Consumer demand in the fall of 2020 remained very high, even though mattress prices had increased and, in many cases, consumers were waiting 8 to 12 weeks to receive their mattress.
As 2021 came around, the supply of mattress componentry was slowly starting to get caught up, but it was still nothing close to normal. In early 2021 the second round of government stimulus payments came through and consumer demand for finished mattresses went up dramatically again. Component prices continued to rise because these suppliers couldn’t begin to meet this increased demand. I spoke with one mattress manufacturer, and he said that from January to beginning of March of 2021, his raw materials costs for lumber went up 45%, flexible polyurethane foam went up 25%, and steel went up 8%. To further complicate things, in February a huge unexpected deep freeze hit the South, driving the price of flexible polyurethane foam through the roof, and throwing the mattress industry into a tailspin. Here’s why.
Simply stated, flexible polyurethane foam is a reaction between isocyanates, polyols, and water. Most of the facilities producing these chemicals in the United States are located along the Gulf Coast, and they were all knocked out by this deep freeze, with many sustaining damage. To get into even more detail, propylene is the monomer precursor chemical for the production of polyol, and polyol is the main ingredient in polyurethane foam. It is this propylene production that was knocked out due to this storm. In addition, a majority of the production of the isocyanate TDI, the other major ingredient in polyurethane foam, was knocked out due to this storm. So, in one fell swoop, the two main ingredients for the production of polyurethane foam went to almost zero overnight. And with minimal supplies of these ingredients, the polyurethane foam manufacturers are limited in the amount of foam that they can produce.
Immediately after this storm, most polyurethane foam companies and chemical suppliers started speaking French. “Force majeure, force majeure!” Contracts were suspended and prices increased. Domestic propylene supplies had been at very low levels before the storm and their prices had been near 10-year highs, so this storm was just Mother Nature dogpiling on our already existing supply and production issues.
The polyurethane foam companies reacted by rationing delivery of foam to about 50%-60% of pre-existing levels to their clients. The mattress manufacturers were already at very low levels of backstock of foam within their factories, so we can expect more delays in finished mattress production, and this will also be followed by price increases on finished mattresses for the next few months.
Now, I know that’s a lot of bad news. The good news is these chemical factories can be repaired. But it’s going to take few months for these repairs to be made, and well as allowing for the complicated refinery start up procedures. These factories were designed to withstand hurricanes, but they really didn’t have enough notice to do a proper shutdown before this big ice storm hit, what the locals called “icepocalypse”.
So, these are the main reasons for the delays and price increases in the mattress industry this past year. It’s a real thing. Hopefully, our industry can start to get back to normal towards the later end of 2021. Here’s keeping our fingers crossed.