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Mystery Shopper: Keeping it cool with a store full of customers

The sun was beaming over Seattle and the Starbucks staff was asking, "Would you like your coffee iced today?" So, after a jolt of caffeine, our SNEWS® shopper crossed a busy street and walked into the Busy Body Home Fitness showroom in Tacoma where everything was metallic and cool.

SNEWS® heads to Seattle for another in our popular series of Mystery Shoppers, where we able to observe and experience some pretty darn good salesmanship. 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.

The sun was beaming over Seattle and the Starbucks staff was asking, “Would you like your coffee iced today?” So, after a jolt of caffeine, our SNEWS® shopper crossed a busy street and walked into the Busy Body Home Fitness showroom in Tacoma where everything was metallic and cool.

He moved immediately to the left side of the store where Parabody and Hoist machines lined the wall since “Bob” (not his real name, of course) was there to see how the staff would work with his need for strength-training equipment. Quickly casing the joint, Bob spotted an employee in a back room helping a woman roll a piece of equipment onto a truck. At least six other shoppers browsed the store; this seemed like a popular place. Unfortunately, the employee in the back was the only person working the store during this early afternoon rush on a Saturday.

Checking out the strength machines was a stocky man, his wife and two boys about 6 to 8 years old. They were fiddling with various machines, waiting for the salesperson, who was working as fast as he could to satisfy several customers. After Bob had been in the store 10 minutes or so, the well-tanned salesman approached the husband and wife and said he’d be with them in a minute. The salesman was quick, but didn’t appear flustered or rushed and maintained a friendly demeanor. Our shopper decided to wait a while to see how the salesman worked with the family — like a SNEWS® fly on the wall.

After another five minutes, the salesman walked over to the family at the strength machines and introduced himself as Don. “How can I help you?” he asked.

“We wanted to check out some of these machines,” the father said. “We’ve never really lifted that much, but we’re looking to get started.”

“OK, basically we have three types of machines,” Don said in an upbeat tone. He then took brief turns demonstrating presses on a Parabody CM3 machine, a Parabody GS4 and a Hoist V5, explaining the difference between the action of a cable system, a fixed system and a machine with an articulated arm. Don said that no system was necessarily superior, but it just depended on what was most comfortable. He then invited them to try out the each model so they could get a feel for the differences to figure out what they liked.

This was a great way to start a pitch, Bob thought. It was a logical first step in the decision-making process because the action — cable, fixed or otherwise — obviously sets the machines apart, and the family’s preference would focus the sale. Also, this quickly put the customers on the equipment, which is simply solid sales technique.

After a few minutes, the father asked Don which machine he preferred. “I like the V5,” Don said as he walked over to it. “It’s kind of a cross between the cable-type system and the fixed system.” He twisted the arms on the V5 and said that the action is similar to that of a person’s arm — not total range of motion, but still a good bit to provide a more intense workout. He also pointed to an orange sticker on the V5, which stated that Men’s Journal gave the machine its highest rating in a review. Nice touch, Bob thought, surreptitiously listening in. Gear reviews help sell products, so why not make them work for you?

Don then demonstrated each feature on the V5 thoroughly, mentioning that the product would be versatile enough to suit a variety of fitness goals. Another astute gesture, Bob thought. Too often, we see salespeople speak only to the man of the house and ignore the other family members. Big mistake when you consider the buying power of women, which of course the fitness industry knows is huge — influencing the sale or actually making the purchase in about 80 percent of all transactions.

Don then noticed that our shopper was standing back and paying attention, so he looked over and said, “Hey, sorry I haven’t been able to help you yet….”

“No, no, that’s fine,” Bob told him. “I’m actually interested in one of those also, so I’m just listening in.”

“Well, jump in with questions at any time,” the friendly salesman replied.

Don continued his demonstration and moved through several exercises, including three types of presses. “This is what they call an Arnold Schwarzenegger press,” he said smiling, and then pressed his arms forward and pushed his hands together. Nice touch of personality, that comment was, Bob noted.

As he sat on the bench of the V5, Don said, “This is the thing that really sets this apart from the others,” and he showed the family how to do leg kickbacks while seated. This was obviously one of the great selling points of the machine, so it made sense to highlight it. If there are things to aid the sale, why not take full advantage? Go, Don!

Don also said a couple of times how the V5 was easy to use and how you could move quickly between exercises. That was an important aspect for a family just getting into strength training. He said that from a seated position you could also do pull-down crunches, and got up to demonstrate how to use attachments for a seated row, curl and other leg extensions. Finally, he told them they could add a leg press attachment.

The father then asked how the V5 differed from a nearby Life Fitness G5. Don first said the G5 had a cable-type action, and then pointed out that the bench could be rolled away and used separately. “That way you could use the bench with dumbbells, or sit on an exercise ball or something else instead of a bench while you work out,” he said. (Conveniently, right beside the G5 sat a large display that showed a person using the machine while sitting on a ball.) The father cocked his head and placed his thumb and forefinger to his chin. Bob figured the whole ball thing had thrown him a bit and, you have to admit, if you’ve never seen anyone doing strength training while sitting on a ball, it might appear a little odd. But the salesman picked up on the father’s reaction. “It’s maybe for someone who’s been working out for a while,” Don said, and quickly turned the family’s attention back to the V5.

Good move, our shopper thought — offer a choice and, if it doesn’t work, just get back on track and keep moving forward.

By this time, the kids were crawling on the V5, begging to try the leg kickback. Oooh… this’ll be good, our shopper-spy thought. What is Don going to do? Retail’s kind of like acting — things become unpredictable when working with kids. But Don was very patient, and he calmly showed the boys how to get on the seat and place their legs in the proper position. (And he was also careful to take almost all the weight off.)

As the kids cranked away, their parents continued to mull things over, and Don provided them with some information so they could think about their decision at home.

When they left, Don turned to our shopper, Bob, and apologized again because of the wait. While Bob certainly wasn’t miffed, he imagined that a typical, time-pinched customer of today would have been frustrated by standing around so long. Certainly a suggestion for this store would be to give this guy a wingman (or wingwoman, if you will) on the weekend. Since Bob had heard most of the sales pitch, he just tied it up by asking about the cost of the leg press attachment, and said he was looking for alternative leg exercises after injuring his back doing squats.

He checked out the price of the leg press and said, “Hey, here’s something you might be interested in.” They walked over to a Hoist PTS machine, and he demonstrated the Dual Action Smith bar that not only moves up and down, but also forward and backward. We knew Hoist had only recently introduced this piece, so it was interesting to see the salesman take the hint and show it off on cue. He said he could understand that our shopper wanted to avoid squats, but explained that this was a great new system that could allow Bob to still do them if he wanted. Nice that he had recognized a concern, and definitely not bad to point out new technology that might change a customer’s mind or help him or her find a solution.

He showed Bob several exercises on the PTS and invited our shopper to come in with workout clothes some time and try some machines for a while. “After about the fourth time, I might have to charge you a membership fee, though,” he joked, throwing in a funny story about another Seattle-area store where people were just dropping in and working out on the way to work. (Ha! Now there’s a whole other SNEWS® Mystery Shopper waiting to happen.)

When Bob told him that he needed to wade back out into the heat of the day, the salesman grabbed some literature to give him and reiterated that he was welcome to come back and give the machines a whirl on a workout.

SNEWS View: Obviously, this was a first-rate salesperson. He was not only friendly and easy going, but he also made sales look easy — and that takes lots of experience and work. He was effective, while he also put customers at ease, offering detailed information, but not overwhelming them with things that wouldn’t suit their desires. Plus, the few minutes he took to help the kids with the leg exercise could have made all the difference with a family shopping together. Their mother was watching, and our SNEWS® undercover shopper was watching her. Guess what? Mom was smiling and encouraging the kids, obviously enjoying the whole process. We bet Don’s willingness and ability to involve them probably had more effect that any technical specs he could offer.

If we had any criticism, it’s just that he should have had some help that day. This guy was about as good as we’ve seen juggling customers — especially in a retail situation where customers often need a solid block of time — but he still couldn’t do it all. Still, if the other employees at the store were as on top of it as this guy, we can understand why it’s a popular store — even if it was a rare and sunny in Seattle.