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Mystery Shopper: Thin product selection, lack of fitting tools doom footwear sale

Our Mystery Shoppers get frustrated when they encounter an outdoor specialty store that essentially carries one brand of boots, while its well-meaning salesperson struggles due to a lack of fitting expertise and tools.

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Our goal with Mystery Shoppers is not to pick on one person or one store — or to praise one particular store or person — but to point out what went right and what, if anything, went wrong and, hopefully, to offer a learning experience to any and all retailers. Each and every shopping experience can be widely different, even at any one store or with any one person. Don’t forget to visit our Training Center ( to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.

Guntersville, Ala., is a small town that rests beside a big bend in the Tennessee River. At the far end of a string of downtown shops sits Guntersville Outfitters, a mid-sized outdoor specialty store that our mystery shoppers, Jack and Jill, had passed a few times on their way to a nearby state park. Having never been in the place, they were curious to check it out, and visited the store on a sunny weekend, intent on fitting Jill with new hiking boots.

They walked into the store’s front showroom, which was tidy and had decent lighting, though there was nothing particularly unique to give it an outdoorsy feel. Shrugging off the sterile appearance of the store, they did appreciate that its many apparel racks were spaced well, offering good room to move about, and they noted that the racks held products from the usual players, such as Mountain Hardwear and Patagonia. To the right was a rather cramped U-shaped footwear area. One leg of the U was a small slatwall display of mid-cut and low-cut Keen shoes. The bottom of the U was a wall with a window, and on the windowsill sat an assortment of shoes and sandals. The last leg of the U was a rack of socks, and in the middle of all this was a table packed with Chaco sandals.

The overall impression our Mystery Shoppers had was that the space seemed cramped, and there was little space to sit down and try on shoes. They were also struck by the small selection of hiking boots, with really just one brand — Keen — represented. On the other hand, the sandal assortment was much larger, leading our mystery shopping team to surmise that this is where the store made its hay.

Not long after Jack and Jill entered and walked to the footwear area, a friendly employee who appeared to be in his early 20s greeted them and he asked if he could help our shoppers find anything. He did not offer his name, nor did he wear a nametag. (Despite the fact that we harp on this all the time, retailers aren’t getting the message that they should instruct their employees to introduce themselves, as it makes the sales experience seem much more personal.)

“Yes, I need a pair of hiking boots,” said Jill in response to his query.

“What size shoe do you wear?” the salesman asked.

“About an eight and a half,” Jill replied.

“And you’re going to be using them for hiking, or everyday wear, or…?” asked the salesman.

Ah, good. When the salesman had led off with the question about size, Jack had gotten a little concerned. While getting the proper size is essential, he knew that it was equally important to find out how Jill would be using the shoes, and he was happy that the salesman quickly broached that subject.

“I’m probably going to do some overnight backpacking,” said Jill.

The salesman left and returned with a pair of Keen Targhee Mid boots, which wasn’t a surprise, as this was really the only option available. Not that this was an inappropriate shoe. In fact, it’s well-built and extremely popular for its versatility. Plus, Keen has become an overwhelmingly popular brand in the South, so our team of operatives was not surprised to see the store emphasizing it.

Unfortunately, when the salesperson returned, he said that he didn’t have an eight and a half, but he did have a size nine, and noted that a lot of people go up a half size with this particular shoe. Another problem, thought Jack. If you’re going to offer such a shallow selection, you should at least be sure to stock plenty of sizes.

“This shoe is nice and lightweight and it’s waterproof. It’s not Gore-Tex, but it’s Keen’s own version,” said the salesman.

Hoping to get a sense of the salesman’s product knowledge, Jill looked at the shoe and noted the Keen Dry label. “So is this what that is?” she asked, hoping the salesman would go into further detail about the waterproof technology, but the salesman simply did not take the bait. Granted, he might have thought that he did not want to go into deep technical details, but when a customer leads the conversation in the direction of wanting more specifics, the salesperson should at least explain the merits of the technology.

“So, you said they’re light, but will this work with me carrying a backpack?” asked Jill, having put them on.

“They will,” he said.

“So, is Keen the only kind that you carry?” Jill asked.

“Keen and The North Face,” the salesman replied. However, there seemed to only be one shoe by The North Face present, and it was sitting alone on the windowsill.

“So, is that just because that’s what you like?” asked Jill.

The salesman said the Keen shoes were very popular, and then another salesman chimed in from across the room that the Targhee boots won a 2008 Backpacker magazine award for best value.

Actually, it’s not a bad idea to point out such awards to customers, but it still bothered our Mystery Shoppers that the store was pushing essentially one brand. The fit of footwear varies so widely from brand to brand that it’s impossible to satisfy a broad range of customers with products from just one company.

Jill then asked if the shoes had good arch support, and the salesman assured her that they did. While that answer was fine, what our team was actually trying to do was gently open the door to a discussion about aftermarket insoles, but the salesman didn’t go there and, as a result, a potential add-on sale also vanished.

“So how do I know size-wise if this is the size I need?” asked Jill. At this point, Jack was hoping the salesman would check the volume and fit of the shoes, and perhaps place his hand over the boot to feel for excess material bagging out. Jack also looked around for an incline board, which could be used to check the heel fit and ensure that Jill’s toes did not knock the front of the boot. But there was no incline board available.

The salesman did, however, measure her foot on a Brannock device, making sure to measure her while she stood. At least the guy was putting forth some effort and using the limited tools at hand. But determining foot length and width really does no good if the salesman can’t employ other methods to determine whether the boots fit correctly.

The salesman then recommended that Jill walk around the store for a bit in the shoes — a good suggestion.

As Jill walked about the store to see how the boots felt, the salesman struck up a conversation with Jack, asking where they were planning to backpack. Jack appreciated that the salesman was showing genuine interest in his customers, and he felt that with a bit more training and tools, this guy could be a really effective salesman.

After a few moments, Jill noted that a point near the arch of one shoe was rubbing her foot uncomfortably. The salesman removed the insole from that boot and inspected the interior to see if there was a defect. Again, at least the guy was trying. He did offer to load a backpack with weight so that Jill could test the fit with a load, but it didn’t seem like the right move because of the basic problem with the shoe rubbing, so Jill declined.

The salesman then fetched an alternate pair to see if the problem was consistent from shoe to shoe. Indeed, the problem presented itself again, and Jill said she would prefer to keep looking for another type of shoe.

Jack asked if any of the low-cut Keen shoes on the wall might work, and the salesman smartly cautioned that they wouldn’t offer adequate support for backpacking.

With no other boot options available, Jack and Jill informed the salesman that they would browse the store for a bit, and soon headed out the door simply disappointed.

SNEWS® View: It’s hard for any store to sell footwear effectively without a decent selection of products. And frankly, any footwear department that basically offers only one brand of hiking boots, as good as that brand may be, is not carrying a decent selection of products. It’s also virtually impossible for any store employee to fit people properly without adequate boot-fitting knowledge and all the necessary tools. The salesman in this case was doing his best to be helpful, but he never followed even a most basic rule in boot fitting — get on your knees. Meaning, it does a customer little good if the salesperson simply brings out boxes of shoes and then stands up to observe the customer trying on footwear. He must kneel down to feel and truly understand the way the boot fits, and also to check the toe position, lacing, etc. Actually, the salesman got lucky that Jill experienced an obvious problem with rubbing. Often, customers face more subtle fit issues, issues that can be solved with a variety of methods, including aftermarket insoles, modified lacing techniques, adding special padding, etc. Unless a salesperson gets on his knees and works closely with the customer trying on boots, there is no way to know just what problems might lay ahead, or what solutions might be offered. Too, without an incline board or some reasonable facsimile, it was impossible to see how the boots would fit while ascending and descending a path.

The overall lesson here is that for a specialty store to succeed with any product category, unless it only wants to sell on price alone, it must make a full commitment to that category, offering a sufficiently broad selection, training its staff well, and equipping the department with the tools necessary to support every sale. Those who fail to make a full commitment will, unfortunately, likely start to see many more people walking out the door disappointed.

–SNEWS® Editors