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Mystery Shopper: Belts, bearings and horsepower…oh my!

Our undercover shopper, Judy, strode into the Fitness Experts store on Waukegan Road in Deerfield determined to have a grand shopping experience for a treadmill -- one that didn't look like a big, square, chunk o' black metal. Although the storefront itself was well kept, the shopping center it's in is in dire straits. Still, Fitness Experts had a large, easy-to-spot sign with bold, red lettering.

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Here we go with another of our somewhat mediocre mystery shopping adventures. OK, so a Fitness Experts outlet in the Chicago area didn’t quite live up to the title “experts,” but at least our sales guy didn’t have us crawling onto dusty shelves in storerooms like our undercover shopper was encouraged to do for our November story. Nevertheless, as we say over and over: Our goal with these Mystery Shoppers is not to pick on one person or one store — or to praise one — but to point out what went wrong and what went right and, hopefully, offer a learning experience. Don’t forget to visit our Training Center ( to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.

Our undercover shopper, Judy, strode into the Fitness Experts store on Waukegan Road in Deerfield determined to have a grand shopping experience (with a store name like EXPERTS, how could she lose?) for a treadmill — one that didn’t look like a big, square, chunk o’ black metal. Although the storefront itself was well kept, the shopping center it’s in is in dire straits — mostly deserted, with closed-up storefronts and rather difficult access from the intersection it sits on. Still, Fitness Experts had a large, easy-to-spot sign with bold, red lettering. Couldn’t miss it.

The spacious store was neat and clean, but Judy was wide-eyed at the huge selection of treadmills marching down the wall and across one aisle. She slowed her sure gait in front of the row and glanced at them, up and down, back and forth…. Oh wow, where do I start? A sales guy didn’t take more than a minute or two to hustle over to her. Or Judy had to assume he worked there since he didn’t have on a company shirt or name tag and didn’t introduce himself.

“Are you looking for a treadmill?” he asked.

“Well, ummmm, yes,” Judy said, pausing, then adding, “Gee, you have a lot…. What’s the difference?”

Boy, if that wasn’t the opening line that our sales guy must have been waiting for. Without hesitation and before he asked her what she wanted, why she wanted it, or inquired anything about her goals, level, experience or space requirements, he launched into a short lecture that included a bunch of gobbledygook tech talk about belts, bushings, horsepower, decks, belts and bearings. Honestly, Judy’s eyes were rolling back in her head and she’d only been there about two minutes.

Determined to give the experience a chance, she took a breath and said, “Well, they are all really … black…. Do you have any that are nicer-looking? I sort of wanted to put it in my living room.” She thought that would kick-start the seriously mechanically oriented sales guy into realizing that Judy really didn’t care about all the inner workings as long as the treadmill looked nice and worked for her.

He didn’t nibble the bait, but instead started telling Judy about True Fitness treadmills and Life Fitness treadmills — “ones most people know from the club.” Oh boy, oh boy, he still wasn’t making points. How did he know Judy went to the club since he hadn’t asked and, honestly, we know a lot of folks who work out on equipment for years and can’t tell us the brand name. He gravitated back to the True treadmills, which seemed to dominate the line-up on the wall and were the blackest and least-pretty of the ones there. “These all have 2.5 to 3 horsepower motors,” he told our shopper, who was trying so desperately not to lose focus with all this mechanical speak.

“What’s the difference?” she asked him.

“It’s more motor,” he said. Oh, now that’s a great answer. Just a feature. No benefit. And what the heck did “more” mean and should she care?

“Is that important?” she pressed him slightly, only to have him add that as long as it was 2 horsepower, it would work fine.

“Oh, so I don’t really need the 2.5 or 3 horsepower,” she summarized for him. Don’t suppose that made points.

When she looked slightly askance at the True treads and commented how they were all so black and kinda sharp-edged, he directed her to a couple of Life Fitness models, telling her one had a 2.5 horsepower motor and one had a 2.75 horsepower motor. Boy, he was really caught up with these motors, Judy thought, even though he had just said it didn’t really make a difference.

Judy again veered the conversation back to her living room space, pointing to a couple of treadmills in the lineup that weren’t so black and might look nicer there. “What about those?” she asked, nodding in the direction of a couple of Bowflex models and a Trimline that were smoother-looking and lighter colored. He acknowledged them, but tried to sweep her back to the True treadmills, commenting about how they got the best ratings in Consumer Reports and were “the most popular.” Man, thought Judy, it sure seemed like he was trying to land some spiff or benie by selling the True models because he sure was intent on them and he really wasn’t listening to Judy’s words about space and looks.

Heck, he still hadn’t invited her to get on one and try it out, so Judy decided to invite herself. Onto the Bowflex and the Trimline she went (although the contact heart rate on the Bowflex wouldn’t work for either of them, which isn’t exactly a great selling point), then she pointed at a treadmill that was way at the end of the line, looking a bit lonely like a Cinderella stepsister but with nice curves and a gray color. “What about that one? What’s that?” she asked, walking toward it. The label said “Essential” and the price tag said $599. “Why is this so much cheaper?” she asked. “Well,” our sales guy, still without a name, explained this was made by Life Fitness, but the company didn’t put its name on it and the company realized its name was really valuable, so they discontinued the models and are changing them to say Life Fitness…. “It’s the same machine as the others, so we just got a good deal on these.”

So she welcomed herself onto the Essential and said, “Gee, it’s kinda noisy,” just as she had said about the Bowflex and Trimline, sort of hoping the sales guy would pick up on the fact that a quieter machine was important to her. Sigh, he didn’t.

Basically, Judy sort of showed herself around the showroom with sales guy in tow, who kept trying to steer her back to the True treadmills. But he never, ever, in her nearly 40 minutes in the store asked her what she did for workouts, what she wanted from a workout, why she wanted a treadmill, or anything about her space, price range or family needs. Granted, he was nice enough. Very pleasant, smiled politely, wasn’t too pushy, was easy to talk to. But besides trying to continually get her back to True and continuing to sprinkle the conversation with talk of bushings, bearings, gaskets and motors, he didn’t really do his job of matchmaking the customer with a piece of equipment.

She finally acquiesced and went over to the True treadmills, the ones she had noted twice looked really black. When she asked about upkeep on the treadmills, he waltzed her over to a display (yes, by True, and really quite nice if you’re into motors and machine insides) with an exposed motor and belt segment and showed her how she would need to lube the deck every once in a while, using a stick-like thing. “Does that come with it?” she asked. “No, but it could,” he said in a leading way with a teasing tilt to his head. “It normally costs $20.”

“What about guarantees?” she asked. He reassured her they have lifetime on the frames and one year on labor. “Who do I call if I need something?” she asked, and he reassured her all she had to do is call the store and they’d take care of it.

His grand splash conclusion was showing Judy a Life Fitness treadmill with a $7,000 price tag — an odd ending since she had gravitated the entire time to ones that were between about $1,500 and $2,500. Still reeling from all the talk of motors, bushings and gaskets, Judy said she had the most interest in the Bowflex (“I like the fan,” she told him, although it is a bit big, but it does fold, she added.) and the True 500 HRC. He scurried around to get her fliers on both, as well as copies of the Consumer Reports and Runner’s World reviews; at least he had information to give her since some stores don’t!

Still, the guy was without a name. Judy picked up a business card on the counter for the manager and read it: “Are you Lenny?” she asked. Bingo! This was Lenny, she discovered. He wrote the store’s hours on the card and said he was there pretty much every day. He asked her to fill out a form with some contact information, presumably so he could give a call to follow-up, which was a great touch. Thankfully. (We’re sorry, Lenny, we put down bogus information.)

SNEWS® View: We have never been with a salesperson who seemed so intent on motors and mechanicals as Lenny. Maybe it’s a guy thing. But, if so, it’s something for every guy out there to be conscious of and work on getting over. Perhaps he found the mechanical talk fascinating, but most people — and, yes, to stereotype, most women — couldn’t really care any less about all that stuff.

But let’s take a look at what didn’t go so well:

1. We never got a hello or a name. It really does personalize the experience, so how about a little “hi there” and a handshake? At least wear a name tag or a company shirt.

2. He never once asked Judy about her goals, her past exercise experience, what she wanted, if anyone else in the family was going to use the treadmill, where it was going to go, or any number of other questions a salesperson should ask to help match the equipment to the person.

3. Despite mentioning several times about the looks, size and noise, he never picked up that those attributes might be important and never directed her to equipment that she would consider more tasteful.

4. He never helped her compare or decide, but left her frankly swimming in all the treadmills and information. He did give her information on a couple she said she kind of liked; that’s good since some stores we shopped don’t have anything to share.

5. She had to fish out the information about the store and its hours, as well as his name. Don’t you want somebody to know who you are and how they can reach you?

Oh, sigh, no, this wasn’t a dreadful experience. We’d call it fair. But it certainly didn’t leave us dying to go back to buy a treadmill. In fact, if Judy had been a real-live customer and not a SNEWS® operative, we’re pretty sure the experience would have had her scooting for the door much more quickly. That’s too bad since there was certainly plenty to offer in the Fitness Experts store.