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Mystery Shopper: Close, but listening skills missed the mark

Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. That’s what we drill into our shopping agents during Mystery Shopper boot camp. A retailer who only comes close to providing good service, but falls short in the end, will just be another casualty in the struggle to win at retail. One of our Mystery Shopping agents had a close call while visiting a specialty fitness retailer in Tacoma, Wash.

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SNEWS® is still in the Seattle-Tacoma area for another in our popular series of Mystery Shoppers, where we have had some great experiences althouogh this one fell off the mark a bit. Still, as we always like to point out: Our goal with these 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 wrong and what went right and, hopefully, offer a learning experience. 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. 

Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. That’s what we drill into our shopping agents during Mystery Shopper boot camp. A retailer who only comes close to providing good service, but falls short in the end, will just be another casualty in the struggle to win at retail.

One of our Mystery Shopping agents had a close call while visiting a specialty fitness retailer in Tacoma, Wash.

It was 12:20 in the afternoon when our Mystery Man walked into Precor Home Fitness, which stood in a small shopping strip with a beauty supply shop and a computer hardware store. The fitness retailer had a pleasant, clean showroom that was just a bit drab due to low lighting. (What is it with what we perceive as dimly lit stores across the country? Are they trying to lull us into submission?) Our shopping agent, “Eddie,” noticed elliptical machines from Precor, Diamondback and Horizon Fitness lining the front window, while strength machines from Precor and Inspire Fitness were on the right, and products from Keys Fitness and other companies occupied the rest of the store.

No other customers were on the floor when a clean-cut, younger man in a green Polo-style shirt (no name tag) emerged from the back of the store and called out a friendly, “Hello.”

“Hey, how’s it going?” Eddie replied, continuing to browse around the strength machines.

A few minutes had passed – a comfortable time to let a shopper settle in and look around a bit — when the salesperson walked over and asked, “Are you looking for something?” Granted, he said this in a very cheerful way, but let us for a moment hop onto our soapbox for a moment and preach that salespeople should avoid this greeting. Instead, they should open with something original and more chatty to quickly establish a unique and authentic rapport, like “Hey, it’s beautiful this week, isn’t it?” or “Rainier looks incredible today, doesn’t it?” Anything other than the standard greeting you get at Wal-Mart. And, let’s get it straight, if a customer weren’t looking for SOMEthing, would they be in the store… looking? OK, sermon over. We’re off the soapbox.

“I’m looking for something to replace my Bowflex,” our Mystery Shopper said. “I’ve used it for years, but I need some more weight for presses.”

The salesperson nodded with understanding and pointed out a few disadvantages of an older Bowflex—you have to make many adjustments to do various exercises, etc. He made some valid points, so out Mystery Shopper was feeling good.

“Is that mostly what you’re looking for, something to do presses?” the salesperson asked. OK, fair enough question, our Mystery Man thought. Maybe he’s trying to narrow down the choices and put Eddie on something to target that need although the shopper was looking for a total body workout.

“Well, I do a variety of things, work my legs, do some dumbbell stuff,” our undercover agent replied.

“Do you have much space?” the salesperson asked (good qualification!).

“Well, I’m working out in a garage, but I could move things around to allow a bit more space than I have right now,” the agent replied. Gazing around the store, our Mystery Shopper observed that several of the strength machines on the floor would fit into a space very similar to what a Bowflex occupies, but the salesperson chose not to go in that direction.

“A bench and dumbbells would probably work best,” the salesperson suggested. Unfortunately, he didn’t ask what type of equipment our Mystery Shopper preferred or didn’t ask more probing questions about his goals. Sure, a weight bench might get the job done, but was it right to assume that a person would feel comfortable with it? Sometimes it seems that a male salesperson assumes a male shopper who is a bit beefier looking wants to heave iron around. The salesperson could have asked why our Mystery Shopper had used the Bowflex for so many years. Was it for safety, convenience, the action of the machine? There were many questions he could have asked to help narrow down the search better than going directly to a bench and free weights.

The salesperson took our agent to a Smith rack with a Keys Fitness bench beneath it. He lay back on the bench and demonstrated presses on the Smith rack. To his credit, the salesperson did offer his opinion on how the action of the Smith machine differed from a Bowflex, displaying good knowledge of each. However, he didn’t point out the variety of exercises a person could do on the machine, so it was a very cursory explanation. Though, he did say that our Mystery Shopper could do dumbbell exercises with the bench.

Eddie, at this point, wanted to steer the action away from the bench and move toward the home gyms. “You know, I’m starting to get a little worried about getting injured when I’m lowering larger dumbbells,” our Mystery Shopper said. But the salesperson didn’t take the bait and offer up a gym as an alternative. Instead, he walked to a rack of dumbbells covered with rubber, adding that they could be safely dropped to the floor. The idea of dropping dumbbells to the floor seemed rather clunky despite gym-bound muscleheads who like to do this, but we give the salesperson some credit for at least looking for solutions.

Our Mystery Shopper then moved back the bench and Smith machine and said that he liked to work his legs and needed a solution for that, as well. The salesperson pointed out the leg attachment for the Keys bench, but said, “Honestly, I don’t like the way it works. It’s a little wobbly and doesn’t give that smooth of an action.” Hey, big points for leveling an honest opinion here, and for showing some detailed knowledge of the system. This was a great chance to segue into a demonstration of similar leg systems on the floor, but the salesperson didn’t make the connection, which would have seemed like a key part of closing a sale.

“One of the best things you can do for legs is squats,” he said, signaling that the Smith rack would be good for that exercise. But our Mystery Shopper replied that he had once hurt his back doing squats, so maybe that wasn’t a good idea. Of course, this was an excellent opportunity to move over to the gyms, many of which not only sported leg extension systems, but attachments for leg presses. Nevertheless, the salesperson once again ignored the bait and seemed determined to offer a squat solution and walked to a nearby display of weighted bars by Spri Products. He picked up a 30-pound bar and did a few squat reps, saying, “You could do higher reps with lower weight.” Again, at least he was offering alternatives, but … hello? … what about the gyms on the floor? He just wasn’t bringing them into the mix. Eddie finally asked if the salesperson could show him the Precor Zuma and Inspire M2 strength machines.

When our shopper asked about the differences between the systems, the salesperson (he still didn’t have a name) explained that the Inspire had a more commercial-like stack of weights with bearings to make it smooth, while the Zuma had plastic bushings that weren’t quite as smooth. Great technical detail, but he never took our Mystery Shopper through their many exercise options. Nor did he explain how the action of these systems differed from the Bowflex, which would be top of mind for most consumers who had worked out on a Bowflex for a few years. However, he did invite our Mystery Shopper to sit down on the Inspire equipment and feel the leg action. Our shopper made a mental note that, 10 minutes into the sale, this was the first moment he was encouraged to actually get on a piece of equipment and try it—something that should have occurred much sooner.

As our shopper worked the leg extension, another customer entered the store, and the salesperson walked over to the new customer, after excusing himself. For the remainder of the visit (or a little more than five minutes), our Mystery Shopper was left to himself to wander among the strength equipment. Note to salespeople: A wandering customer can quickly become a lost sales opportunity. Of course, for the record, the sales guy never said he’d be back. Eddie finally said that he was going to take off, and the salesperson went to gather some literature for him on a few strength machines and the Smith rack. Our shopper asked about prices, and the salesperson did a good job of writing out sale prices on the various brochures, even clipping his card to the paperwork.

With the flyers in hand, and many questions left on his mind, our shopping agent left the store, glancing up at Rainer a few minutes later and thought to himself, “It sure looks beautiful today.”

SNEWS® View: We commend this salesperson for doing a few things right. He carried himself well, conveyed accurate product knowledge, and was determined to offer solutions – although a bit narrow — to certain concerns of our Mystery Shopper. But, in the end, he never hit a ringer, and the horseshoes didn’t land near the stake.

First, he did not follow the retail sales rule that you continue to ask questions so that you can accurately qualify the customer. He certainly should have asked our Mystery Man what he loved and disliked about his previous exercise equipment. If you’re going to match the customer with the appropriate equipment you’re going to need lots of information. And there’s no better way to do this than by letting the customer talk—a lot—and by listening carefully. Through more conversation, and careful listening, the salesperson could have deduced that safety was a key concern for this customer, and that dropping rubber dumbbells and doing squats didn’t fit the program.

Also, he should have encouraged the customer to use and feel each piece of equipment, starting with the Smith rack, and then observed the customer’s reactions. People will often signal their preferences and objections very quickly, even through body language or a facial expression, which can help give information to a salesperson and narrow the options.

In addition, he should not have left our Mystery Shopper alone because this effectively killed the sale. Granted, with only one salesperson and two customers, the act turns into a bit of a juggle, trying to help both in the best way possible, perhaps even bouncing back and forth between the two.

Lastly, there should be a consistent back-and-forth of discussion between customer and salesperson during the entire process. Let a customer wander for too long, and you’ll likely let a potential sale float out the front door.

One other note: A salesperson really should not make an assumption about what a customer’s goals are by a first impression, which we are beginning to think is happening in some stores. A beefier-looking guy may just want to stay toned and may indeed be nursing back problems. A skinny guy may want to “get ripped.” An older woman could want to share a treadmill with her 20-something zippy running son. Get all the information about goals and usage before closing in on a particular piece to push.