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Mystery Shopper: Looks aren't everything. Or are they?

Rush hour in the Greater Los Angles Basin left freeways clogged and our shopper trying to dodge bumpers and avoid road rage while looking for the correct exit in Orange County, Calif. Getting off the freeway was a relief, although four-lane Main Street in the city of Orange wasn't exactly what one imagines a quaint Main Street to be. We searched desperately for the Nellie's Fitness sign on the street.

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A half a year after starting an occasional series of mystery shopping visits at both fitness and outdoor stores, SNEWS® has seen some good, some bad and a lot of just pretty OK. Although in general our experiences have not been horrifying, none have honestly been so stunning that we’ve departed any store doing a “we’re so happy” jig.

As we’ve done each time, we’d again like to emphasize that our only intent in running these is to provide an educational tool. Our goal is never to point a finger at one solitary store or any one salesperson and say “best” or “bad.” Frankly, we could go into the same store on another day and report an experience that is 180-degrees different — this time either prompting that jig or leaving us to write a flunking report as compared to a glowing one. So this is all about education. Everyone can learn from the next. Everyone has good days and bad days. Sometimes we get stuck in ruts and forget about what we’re doing — or should be doing. This is really all about helping the entire industry lift itself up another rung. And a great well-trained sales team that offers great in-store shopping experiences is a huge part of that.

So read on for another glimpse into a retail selling experience that any one of your customers at any one of your stores could have had. Meanwhile, if you want to read the back reports, head to our new Training Center on SNEWS® and you’ll find all the Mystery Shoppers for both outdoor and fitness.

Rush hour in the Greater Los Angles Basin left freeways clogged and our shopper trying to dodge bumpers and avoid road rage while looking for the correct exit in Orange County, Calif. Getting off the freeway was a relief, although four-lane Main Street in the city of Orange wasn’t exactly what one imagines a quaint Main Street to be. We searched desperately for the Nellie’s Fitness sign on the street, but to no avail. Finally, we spied a large white street sign with large blue bold letters, “EXERCISE EQUIPMENT.” That’s it. Just Exercise Equipment. Set back from the street was a small, plain, beige, stucco building on which indeed was the name “Nellie’s,” albeit this time without the qualifier “exercise” or “fitness.” Our operative, Lola, decided this had to be the place, but had to maneuver a few turns to circle back to not miss the driveway this time.

As she pulled in, she saw a window sign that said “all Body-Solid product.” Not that most folks would know what Body-Solid was or if they should care, but the word “body” indicated this had to be the fitness emporium sought. Ironically, next door was a law office and across the street was a medical building with doctor and wellness offices. Hmmm….

It was just a couple of ticks before 5 p.m. when she walked into the tiny store. Actually, tiny doesn’t begin to describe it. The showroom was a postage stamp with its cement block walls lined with equipment and an island in the middle packed with more equipment. A sea of black and gray steel and plastic confronted Lola. For a moment, she nearly turned and fled, but stuck to her mission — to seek out a fitness shopping experience. At least it seemed clean enough — a hand vac sat in the middle of the showroom floor, evidence of a cleaning just finished, or perhaps one to come. Amid the sea of gray and black, the prison-like walls and huge one-color, floor-to-ceiling wall paintings of people lifting weights or running were a tad scary.

In only took about a minute for the young male sales clerk to finish with a man who hadn’t found what he needed to look up and to ask non-intimidatingly, “Hi, how ya doin’?”

“Fine,” our operative chirped, continuing through the rows slowly, running her hand down a rail or stopping to glance at a console.

The young man didn’t waste more than a few seconds before he came out from behind his desk as Lola began to look a bit confused. “Do you need any help?” he offered.

“Well,… ummm…. Well,…” she shifted her weight from one foot to the next. “Yeah, I guess I’m really kinda confused,” she said, waving her hand lamely at the roomful. She went on to explain how she and her husband worked out at a gym occasionally but her schedule was changing and it wasn’t going to be possible now. So they thought, since they had some money to spend, they would maybe set up an area at home for workouts.

“What do you use at the club?” the clerk asked.

Well, Lola said, when I do get in, I guess sometimes the elliptical and sometimes the treadmill. And sometimes a few weights.

Without bothering to ask how much space she had or how much the couple wanted to spend or how often she or her husband had worked out, the clerk steered her directly to the ellipticals in the front row, including a row of SportsArt. He explained these were the best around.

“Gosh, they look kinda big,” Lola said, still standing behind them, one, because it was going to be a bit of a squeeze to get between them to get on and, two, because he hadn’t invited her to try one.

The clerk wasted no time picking up the clue, directing her around the corner to additional ellipticals, including Kettler, New Balance and Keys. Lola looked at the prices, and then said, “New Balance? I thought they made shoes. How long have they been making equipment?”

Said the clerk without missing a beat, “Oh, about two years, and we just started carrying them about six or eight months ago.” (Too bad the info was wrong, our operative thought to herself without a flinch…though in the grand scheme, it probably didn’t matter.)

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

“The stride is different,” he said.

“What do you mean?” she prodded.

“It feels different,” he said.

Well, our operative thought, that certainly wouldn’t help a customer figure it out and he still hadn’t suggested she get on a piece, so she invited herself. “Ooooohh! This one feels bouncy,” she said, hoping he’d pick up on her description. Then she got on another piece which encouraged the salesperson to state, “This one is really smooth. It uses magnetic resistance.” There’s that tech terminology again: Would a customer really know what “smooth” meant, let alone what “magnetic resistance” was? He had quickly dropped the Keys elliptical from the conversation although it was the smallest one there and Lola had mentioned size and space a couple of times.

Lola got off the ellipticals and cast a look at the recumbent bikes next to them. The clerk was nice and friendly enough but seemed ready to show her and sell her anything, so he started into the recumbents. She looked at the SportsArt with a mesh back and a New Balance that was half the price.

“Wow,” she said. “How come this one is twice as much as that one?”

“This is the top of the line, and it has better seat adjustments, programs, controls, and is just better made,” he said, pointing toward the SportsArt. She gravitated toward the New Balance piece, running her hand over the back, but still not being invited for a test drive.

OK, she said, so those are all possible for an aerobic piece. She explained how she and her husband were thinking about some strength stuff too. He swiveled around and showed a row of several Body-Solid home gyms behind him that ranged from just under $1,000 to twice that much and progressively bigger in size. He still didn’t invite her to sit down and try one.

By then, she and the clerk had wandered around the perimeter of the small store and were standing in front of a set of compact Stamina multi-weight dumbbells on a stand, next to a small rack and near the no-name octagon dumbbells. She asked if the gyms were then her only real choice when it came to strength stuff, eyeing the weights. He tallied up that she could get a simple bench and dumbbells up to 20 pounds for less than $150. Of course, he’d forgotten about her husband, who Lola mentioned in passing two or three times now and who likely would need more weight. And he never even acknowledged the Stamina set under their noses.

“Is there anything else I’d want?” she asked, prodding again and standing next to a glass case with heart rate monitors and across the aisle from gloves and attachments. “No,” he said, explaining how if she got the New Balance Bike for less than $1,000 and the basic Body-Solid gym for less than $1,000, she had an entire set up for — quick calculator button push for delivery and setup charges — for not much over $2,000.

He still hadn’t asked how much money she had to spend, hadn’t tried to explain why some equipment cost more, and hadn’t tried to show her why perhaps spending more was something to consider.

Lola then asked for some fliers for the two bikes, one elliptical and the gym and weights to take home to look at and show her husband. The clerk (conveniently perhaps?) found only two — for the New Balance recumbent bike and the Body-Solid gym. He handed her his card, which had his name scrawled on the top (Ah, Brian, that’s who she’d been talking to for about 25 minutes or so). He suggested she talk to her husband, measure the space she had, and give a call back, adding that if she came back on Monday (this was a Thursday), they could schedule delivery by the following Thursday.

He seemed distracted the last five minutes of their sale time since a group of about four or five 20-somethings had wandered in and were playing with the equipment. He had greeted them pretty casually, as if he knew them, and seemed a bit antsy to get over to them. So Lola thanked him and left the store. Total time touring with Brian, 28 minutes.

She got into her car and felt a bit confused. He was really nice, he had greeted her and spent lots of time with her. But she frankly was nearly as bewildered as when she walked in. He hadn’t really tried to ask questions to help her figure out what she wanted. He never asked about the space she had, until he bid good-bye, telling her to go measure it (how did he know she didn’t have the measurements?). He never really explained the differences between the price levels of the equipment. He certainly never tried to up-sell her, but rather tried to down-sell (although she said she had “some money,” he had never pried as to a price range). And she didn’t know anything more about features, let alone benefits, after nearly a half-hour in the store.

Granted, if she tried to go into a big box or department store, she likely would not have gotten the kind of lengthy personal attention she managed at Nellie’s, and that’s good. But she needed help figuring out what would fit her and her family’s lifestyle. And she didn’t get it.

SNEWS® View: It’s hard for us to figure out this one. It was a nice enough experience. Brian was nice. His manner was nice. The store, albeit teeny, was nice enough (we were told it’s the smallest of Nellie’s six locations). But the customer left without having received any education about what she might consider getting and, more importantly, why. Plus, the clerk never asked all those prodding open-ended questions to help him figure out the sale. Would Lola go back to buy? Maybe not. She might try a few other stores, searching for a clerk who would give her the information her prodding mind obviously wanted to be able to make a decision. People, listen up, specialty stores are not just about being nice — they are about expert service, expert advice, and product and merchandising to match.