The parking lot in front of Tampa Bay Discount Mattress was filling fast.
Tim Horton sat quietly in his office chair, hoping as potential customers came toward his door, hoping, hoping . . . only to watch as most of them ducked into the nail salon next door.
Horton sighed, eyes returning to his computer screen, where maybe he was ordering new mattresses and box sets and maybe he was playing Angry Birds.
Amid a showroom of mattresses crowded like graves, the hours ticked by audibly on a silver wall clock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
Like just about everyone else in retail, Horton was waiting.
Waiting for the economy to recover. Waiting for consumer confidence to return. Waiting for customers to stop ignoring the lumps in their mattresses.
Five weeks ago, Horton and his business partner opened a new mattress store — less than a mile from four other mattress stores.
There are days when Horton, 51, waits all day and doesn't see a single customer. But sometimes, the mattress stars align. Once he sold six mattresses in a day.
One day recently, a woman named Karey Whitfield walked in carrying a spiral notebook and a pillowcase. At home, a cluster of lumps had developed in the middle of the mattress she shares with her husband. The growing "mountain" prevented cuddling.
It was time for a new mattress.
The mattress purchase: You can put it off for years, really.
While the economy sputtered, many people did.
Mattress stores closed. Manufacturers stopped making as many. Mattress company revenue dipped for four consecutive years — down $1.1 billion between 2006 and 2010.
Then something happened. Mattress factories chugged back to life. Mattress companies began hiring again. Revenues increased 4 percent in 2010 and 2 percent in 2011.
"So many people had refrained from purchasing and then they chose to purchase," said Mary Nanfelt, a mattress manufacturing industry analyst in Los Angeles.
Economists look to traditional indicators — stock prices, consumer confidence indexes, the unemployment rate — to discern the future of the economy. But what about sales of mattresses? What do they say about us?
Like men's underwear (up) and nail polish (also up), they are a quirky indicator that tells us more about our psyche now than where we are going.
According to experts, new mattresses are luxuries. We can do without them until we decide we can't do without them. So more people trading cash for a better night's sleep means we're getting more confident about our cash supply.
"It's an industry that's really sensitive to what's going on right now," said Steve Kirn, executive director of the David F. Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research at the University of Florida.
Mattress Giant, the largest mattress retailer in Florida with 126 stores, appears to think we feel more secure. As if 38 stores in the Tampa Bay area weren't enough, it's adding stores here and across Florida. This is significant given that the company went from 370 stores at its peak about five years ago to a little more than 200 today.
"I guess what we're talking about," said Mike Bookbinder, executive vice president of merchandising and marketing for Mattress Giant, "is a light at the end of the tunnel."
The lady with the spiral notebook was mattress-educated. Horton sensed this immediately.
She didn't say it, but her body language was shouting: Don't try to pull one over on me.
"Show me a firm mattress," Whitfield said. "King sized."
Her husband stood by, deferential to her shopping authority. Whitfield, 41, had read more than 300 mattress reviews online. She had visited a dozen stores and lain on at least 150 mattresses. She had been to eight stores that day alone. She was mattress-fried.
Horton led her to three mattresses in the center of his 3,000-square-foot showroom. They were probably not mattresses she'd heard of, he told her, but they were as good as the name brands and far cheaper.
Whitfield smiled. Her previous mattress had been a $2,000 Sealy. She'd had it for almost a decade, but then the material inside the pillowtop had started to bunch up like a continental divide.
They'd put up with it for a while. He worked part time at a restaurant. She threw "romance enhancement" product parties. Money was tight.
One night, she lay on the mattress and looked over at him longingly.
"I'd like to lie next to you one night," she said.
"I'd like to do the same thing," he replied.
So here they were.
Whitfield set down her notebook and laid her pillowcase out on the first of the three beds, the Chateau 1 Luxury Firm. It cost $879 for a king.
She lifted her legs onto the bed and rested her head on the pillowcase. She lay there for three minutes.
Too squishy, she thought.
Horton and his partner opened their first Tampa Bay Discount Mattress store a year ago in Tampa. It was when the mattress industry was showing its first signs of recovery after so many years of retraction.
Horton has shaggy dark hair and a thick mustache. He resembles a darker Donald Sutherland. At the end of the day, he locks up the mattress store and stuffs his 6-foot-8 frame into a Smart car to head home to his schoolteacher wife.
He had come to mattresses via a winding path that included courses at four colleges but no degree, a stint in radio as the straight guy on the funny guy morning show, and a marketing job at Coca-Cola that he parlayed into a marketing job for mattress companies. His partner had worked in mattress sales.
Together, they decided to find the cheapest high-quality mattresses in the industry. They would specialize at the bottom of the market.
It made sense. The mattress industry had changed during the recession.
There were dozens of new mattress decisions for a consumer to make:
Plush, pillowtop or double pillowtop? Bamboo or soy fabric?
Traditional inner spring? Or inner spring with a gel overlay? What about memory foam or latex? Memory foam with latex. Memory foam with a gel core. Organic fibers only. The possibilities were endless.
One of Mattress Giant's most expensive models is the Stearns & Foster Golden Elegance. It has coils wrapped in liquid and foam and layers of Mongolian horsehair, latex, New Zealand wool and cashmere. A king costs $5,599.
Horton said people now wanted either the lower-priced mattress in the store or the most expensive. The middle-ground buyers had evaporated, along with the middle class.
Whitfield sat up from the first bed. She gave it three stars in the notebook.
She went to the next one, called a Century 21. She laid out the pillowcase once more and stretched out on the bed. She lay there for three minutes. She liked the feel of the velvety material, how sturdy and supportive it was to her 289-pound frame. She looked at the paper placard at the end of the bed: $789 for a king.
"What do you think of this one?" she asked her husband. He lay next to her for less than a minute. "Feels good to me," he said.
She jotted down 4 1/2 stars in her notebook. Only one other mattress had achieved that kind of rating, and it cost twice as much at another store.
Whitfield moved to the third bed, the Premier Plush. It was the cheapest of the three: $319 for a king. She heard a squeak as the coils retracted under her weight. She wore shorts and the edge felt rough on the back of her legs.
Too noisy, she thought.
"Uh, no," she said.
She moved back to the second mattress. Not too soft. Not too firm.
Just right, she thought.
Then she thanked Horton and walked out.
A few days later, an older man with white hair came in looking for a twin bed for his grandchild.
Horton led him over to a bunk bed and Bill Scott pressed down on the $129 mattress.
He nodded and began his exit. As he got to the door, though, he turned around and asked a question that had been nagging him.
"How come there are so many mattress stores?" he asked. "There's one on every corner."
The mattress industry was complex. There was a profit to be made on some beds, none on others. If he sold the cheapest bed in his store, his profit was next to nil. If he sold the most expensive bed in his store, his profit might be 20 percent.
The larger-name stores had bigger rents but they could spread their losses over more stores.
"It makes economic sense to them," Horton said. "They've got to constantly keep opening stores to show growth. So as long as the store sells enough to cover the costs . . ."
His voice trailed off.
Scott nodded and walked out.
About five days later, Whitfield returned. She put her credit card on the desk that Horton and his partner had salvaged from Salvation Army.
She wanted the Century 21.
They delivered it a few days later. That night, her husband got home from work around 3 a.m. and nudged her gently.
Then he scooted up close and cuddled her — for the first time in a while.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected]