Consumers now can toss a value-priced mattress in their carts along with a socket set and beef jerky while shopping at Menards, Big Lots or Fleet Farm. Target and Wal-Mart's online stores have jumped on the mattress bandwagon. With little effort, budgeteers can find a queen-sized mattress for less than $400.

On the, er, flip side, it's just as easy to find a mattress for $2,000 or more at such middle-of-the-road stores as Original Mattress Factory, Slumberland or Hom. The widely available Tempur-Pedic memory foam mattresses average about $2,400 for a queen mattress set. Gabberts recently added Aireloom mattresses ranging from $7,000 to $17,000 for queen sets.

The market has split in two, with buyers paying less than $500 on the low, promotional end and $2,000 or more on the high end. Kenny Larson, president of Little Canada-based Slumberland, said it's a classic barbell effect.

"It's the middle market that's getting to be more challenging," Larson said.

While sales of all mattresses has grown at a healthy pace this year, the midline mattress market in the $699 to $1,500 range is sagging a bit, growing $26 million from 2009 to 2011. Low- and high-end beds enjoyed much loftier sales, with low-end mattress sales growing by nearly 10 times as much and high-end mattresses topping 15 times that amount, according to Tempur-Pedic.

Part of the growth in the value segment is the expansion of nonspecialty retailers jumping on the mattress bandwagon, including Menards, Fleet Farm, Costco, Sam's Club, Big Lots and, and

"Two decades ago, we sold a ton of queen mattresses for $499. Now you're lucky to get $399 for a similar bed," said Dave Smittkamp, owner of Dave's Furniture World warehouse sales in St. Paul. It's a race to see who can make the cheapest mattress, he said.

Even retailers as disparate as supermarket outlets are getting into the act. Scott Godes, who owns So Low grocery outlet in north Minneapolis, has a display mattress in his supermarket advertising his bedding store around the corner. "I opened in April 2011 and sell mattresses starting at $99 for a twin to $399 for a king," he said.

Sales of high-end beds, especially non-innerspring mattresses, have made manufacturers even happier. Select Comfort's Sleep Number beds, with a median price of more than $1,800 according to Consumer Reports, experienced a record-setting average selling price in the second quarter, said spokeswoman Gabby Nelson. The dual-controlled air beds top out at $4,400, although its entry-level queen mattress starts at $700.

Sales of Tempur-Pedic's memory foam mattresses soared to even loftier heights. Its sales grew 33.2 percent from 2010 to 2011 compared to Select Comfort's 20.3 growth, according to Furniture Today, an industry trade publication. Despite the high prices of the luxury beds, both companies' mattresses were cited by Consumer Reports' readers as ones that "most improved sleep."

Why the high-low?

With surging sales at both ends and a flat middle, mattresses have become another example of retail's barbell effect. Conventional wisdom might say that the economy is responsible, but George John, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said it's not the recession.

A lot of consumers think a mattress is a mattress, and they don't want to pay top dollar. But despite the recession, many of us are richer than we used to be, and we're looking to make a point of distinction when we buy. "The middle gets hollowed out while the action is at the top and the bottom," he said.

One retailer bucking the trend is Original Mattress Factory. The past two years have each seen double-digit increases, said Jon Quale, vice president. Consumer Reports readers rated its mattresses second only to Tempur-Pedic, although Original Mattress Factory's innerspring mattresses are a third of the price of the memory foam models.

Budget buyers may be paying a lot less than Original Mattress Factory's typical price of about $850 for a queen set, but they're also getting less, said Quale. Bed quality can be judged pound for pound. The heavier the better, he said. Innerspring mattresses today are using fewer coils, a smaller gauge, fewer revolutions per spring, and lighter-weight foam. And many can't be flipped, shortening their life span.

"Most of the cheaper mattresses will last four to six years, tops," said Smittkamp. A $7,000 Aireloom mattress comes with a 20-year warranty for longevity. Regardless of whether the mattress budget is lean or luxurious, most of us are still going to hide the purchase under sheets and a comforter.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633