Are Select Comfort's Research Studies Full of Hot Air?

Also, more on Warnaco's CEO pay, a welcome for Adam Lashinsky and a travelogue.
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Back in the saddle:

It's all in the wording:

As a way to snare sales,

Select Comfort

(AIRB)

cites all kinds of studies (most of which are paid for by Select Comfort, of course) that show that its air mattresses really do provide a better night's sleep. (And some people, including good friends of yours truly, are satisfied customers.) But that's not the point here; the point is the significance of those studies, and who really did them. Select Comfort aggressively uses the studies in its 200-plus stores as a way to build credibility.

Take, for example, the company's proclamation, in last fall's prospectus, that "a recent commissioned study at the

Stanford University Sleep Research Center

" indicated study participants reported "significant improvement in the quality of their sleep in comparison to alternative mattress products." If you didn't pay closer attention, you'd think the test was

done

by Stanford, right? Wrong. It was done by a visiting professor who was just passing through, and Stanford in no way endorses the mattress. Dr. Jed Black, director of the Stanford clinic, says the clinic (not Stanford itself) has actually asked Select Comfort not to use its name. Select Comfort, however, says the wording of its disclosure was approved by Stanford (not the clinic).

Maybe so, but Black says the study involved only eight people, and "from our reading, it is inconclusive." He adds, however, that it's his "clinical impression, not a research impression, that certain populations with chronic back pain or lower back pain may benefit from a softer sleeping surface," like air.

Or a simple slab of foam, which clinicians currently recommend? "I can't say," Black says, "because such a study hasn't been done."

Meanwhile, another "commissioned" study, also cited in the prospectus, was conducted at the

University of Memphis

and "confirmed that spinal misalignments were generally lower on Select Comfort" mattresses. A brief on the study, mailed to prospective customers, says the study was conducted by Dr. John Ray. Ray, who couldn't be reached, does work at the University of Memphis. But he's a professor of mechanical engineering. (The University of Memphis doesn't even have a medical school!) Select Comfort says his qualification is that he has a specialty in biomechanical engineering and has done inner-spring coil studies in the past. "He had the protocol and equipment to do that," the spokeswoman says. (Fine, but if he can't fix a broken leg, should he really be identified as a "doctor" in literature sent to prospective customers?)

The spokeswoman added that she didn't know why I was making such a big deal about the studies "because there have been no other bed-company studies done."

Which brings us to the real question: What if studies show that air mattresses really do make a difference for certain people? Would that be enough to chase away short-sellers, who believe there's little comfort in Select Comfort's stock? Probably not. They point to the company's gross margins of 66%. Sixty-six percent! Those are software margins, not bed margins. But hey, we're talking air here, and the average price of Select Comfort's mattresses is $1,300. Some sell for upwards of $2,500. But that leaves plenty of room for competition to undercut Select Comfort. Already, some air beds, from other companies, are being priced as low as $500.

The Select Comfort spokeswoman counters that the next biggest company in the air mattress is substantially smaller and, besides, her company has 24 patents.

Maybe, but patents can't help patch a leak in prices.

Crystal vs. Wachner, Round Two:

Fallout from this column's

report on compensation expert Graef Crystal's assault on

Warnaco

(WAC)

CEO Linda Wachner's salary apparently went back and forth last week. It culminated with a

New York Times

story on Sunday that said Wachner "was tiring of the contest, saying, 'This is not a game of Ping-Pong.'"

Crystal, however, fired back yesterday with a new report on his Web site (

www.crystalreport.com) with a point-by-point response to Warnaco's point-by-point response to Crystal. I had sent Warnaco a copy of Crystal's report; I felt it was only fair to send Crystal a copy of Warnaco's response. As part of that response, Warnaco called Crystal's report "misleading and erroneous and, therefore, malicious and slanderous."

To which Crystal says: "Simple declarative sentences are constantly urged upon would-be writers. And this is a beauty. That it is utterly wrong and defamatory we will skip over for a moment. We would, however, note that, according to our limited understanding of the law, if we committed anything, it was libel, not slander. Slander is reserved for oral statements."

He then gives a detailed response of why he did neither and why, if he is sued by Warnaco or Wachner, he will not only defend himself, but he will "file a counterclaim asserting that it is Warnaco," not him, "that has engaged in malicious and defamatory behavior."

Ding.

It is with great pleasure...:

That I welcome my buddy

Adam Lashinsky

to

TheStreet.com

. I first ran up against Adam two years ago when I was working at the

San Francisco Chronicle

. He was hired by the

San Jose Mercury News

to become my head-to-head competitor. For much of my 10-year run in S.F. I had no direct competition, so I didn't know quite what to expect when Adam arrived on the scene. Especially since he came from my alma mater,

Crain's Chicago Business

, where I toiled more than 15 years earlier -- back when the punk was still in middle school!

Crain's

teaches its reporters to be tough, to zag while the daily newspapers zig, and to bring a tension-filled point of view to the story. In other words, this guy was ready to use my own ammo on me! (Heck, my old editor from

Crain's

emailed me to warn me that Adam reminded him of me, and that Adam promised to give me a run for my money.)

Which he did.

He quickly set up shop in San Jose, developed a solid core of sources (stealing a few of mine, I might add!) and before long snared me as a reader. What choice did I have? The darn guy was scooping me! It didn't take long before he had my respect and friendship. Not only was I struck by his talent as a reporter, but I was impressed by his integrity.

Just as it has been an honor to call him a friend, it will be an even bigger honor to call Adam a colleague.

I'm sure you'll understand why after he hooks you, too.

Travelogue:

If you have children old enough to appreciate it, and if they're lucky enough to have a late spring break (away from Easter and the crowds), a week in Washington, D.C., in April is a must. No heat or humidity. Little in the way of crowds. (That hour-and-a-half wait to get into the

Capitol

was worth it.) Folks are actually friendly in a West Coast sort of way. And this tip: Don't forget to get tickets well in advance (like three to six months) through your senator or Congressman for the

FBI

, the

Bureau of Engraving

(we were forced to leave by a fire!) and the

White House

.

Yep, saw

Bill

, but only as his motorcade whizzed by. The kids couldn't have given a hoot when I said, "Hey, kids, there's

Robert Rubin

, the Treasury secretary!"

To which my wife, after seeing my astonishment that nobody cared, said, "This isn't Hollywood!"

As usual, mother knows best!

Herb Greenberg writes daily for TheStreet.com. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He welcomes your feedback at

herb@thestreet.com. Greenberg writes a monthly column for Fortune and provides commentary for CNBC.