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Mystery Shopper: No, I do NOT want to get ripped. Aren't you listening?

Seems a guy can learn a lot about himself while Mystery Shopping. Our undercover shopper, code-named Grits, discovered much to his surprise that he's a dude who wants to get "ripped." As in body-building, iron-pumping, lift-till-you-cry ripped. Gee, in the past Grits always considered himself a calorie-burning kind of guy, but that was before SNEWS® sent him on assignment to Florida, where one fitness retailer was determined to pump Grits up, even if it apparently meant bodily harm.

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Dang, our “roll” of two really great Mystery Shoppers in a row (Oct. 10 and 27) just took a face plant with this one. We were getting so stoked! OK, so our experience at Fitness Outlet in Florida was one day, with one guy, but it was so many things it should not have been. Nevertheless, as we say over and over: Our goal with these 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.

Seems a guy can learn a lot about himself while Mystery Shopping. Our undercover shopper, code-named Grits, discovered much to his surprise that he’s a dude who wants to get “ripped.” As in body-building, iron-pumping, lift-till-you-cry ripped. Gee, in the past Grits always considered himself a calorie-burning kind of guy, but that was before SNEWS® sent him on assignment to Florida, where one fitness retailer was determined to pump Grits up, even if it apparently meant bodily harm.

In a crowded mall in Jacksonville, Fla., Grits peered through the front glass window of Fitness Outlet. A weight bench sat just inside next to the glass, while other strength machines and a variety of cardio equipment was spread throughout the dimly lit showroom. As he walked into the store, he saw a salesperson sitting on the cash/wrap counter and talking to another salesperson seated behind the counter. Apparently, their conversation was important, because the two failed to even acknowledge Grits, even after he’d wandered the store for four or five minutes. Ooooo, that’s the first big ouch of this shopping experience. After browsing several Body-Solid machines on the right side of the store, Grits walked back to the counter where a third employee was talking with a customer. Our man undercover waited patiently for a couple of minutes, until the third employee introduced himself as Mike and asked Grits if he needed any help. (Mike wore no nametag, but at least he offered his name.)

“Yeah, I’m looking for some kind of weight training equipment,” said Grits. “I’ve used a Bowflex for a few years, but I’m interested in looking at something else.”

“Oh, OK, so you’re looking for something other than a Bowflex,” Mike said, offering some good communication feedback at least to make sure he understood what Grits said.

“I guess. I’m not really sure what I want,” said Grits. “I’m benching all the weight on the Bowflex, so I might need something else.” Our Mystery Shopper was trying to lead Mike into a Q&A concerning his exercise goals and features that might be important. Grits hoped Mike would ask him about the features of the Bowflex that he liked. After all, that would make sense, too, wouldn’t it?

“OK, I’ve got something to show you,” Mike said, and led Grits over to a Body-Solid machine.

So far, Mike had skipped an important step — qualifying the customer. But he seemed friendly and enthusiastic, so Grits still had hope. Unfortunately, his hope soon faded.

“OK, basically, the Bowflex is crap,” said Mike. Hmm, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to tell a customer that the equipment he’s been using for years is “crap,” even if that was Mike’s honest opinion, a customer might find that comment … uh … insulting. Then Mike backpedaled a bit. “Well, the Bowflex is OK, but what you need is a bench.”

Up to this point, Mike had still not asked Grits about his exercise objectives. He didn’t inquire as to whether our undercover man wanted to burn calories, bulk up or whatever, or anything about space or other needs. But somehow, he had already determined that a weight bench was the only way to go. Apparently, the salesperson took one look at Grits — a person in average shape, young-to-middle age, with a decent-girth in the chest and back although not truly bulked up — and determined that the customer obviously wanted to go hardcore with a weight bench. Of course, this was a curious assumption, seeing as how the customer had just said he worked out for years on something more similar to the many gyms in the store.

Nevertheless, Mike led Grits to a Keys Fitness bench that sat near the glass window: “I can get you this bench for a good price, around $300,” said Mike. “This is the kind of thing you need to workout hard. This is the kind of equipment you see in a gym.” Price was obviously at the top of Mike’s mind, and for some reason he assumed that our Mystery Shopper was looking for lower-priced product for that hardcore workout. Grits considered his wardrobe — T-shirt, jeans — and thought, “Well, maybe I just look cheap.”

Mike asked if Grits typically worked out with a machine or free weights. (Wait. Hadn’t he just explained that he’d used a Bowflex for years? Was this salesperson even listening?) “Well, I’ve used a bit of both. I have used dumbbells in the past, and I’ve used a bar to do squats. But I’m trying to get away from squats because I’m worried about hurting my back.”

“Well, I can show you another way to work your legs,” Mike said, and Grits nodded eagerly, hoping for a helpful product demonstration. They walked back over to a Body-Solid gym, and the salesperson then sat down on the machine and demonstrated a leg curl. “Since you don’t like to do squats because of your knees, you can do this.”

Naturally, our agent raised an eyebrow. First, because he had said the concern was his back, not his knees. But thanks for playing anyway. Mike then said you could do this same type of thing on the weight bench. He hopped up, and then walked back over to the Keys bench to begin another demonstration of the leg curl. “Well, that’s not really like a squat,” said Grits. “Is there any type of thing that I could do a leg press on?” But Mike said he didn’t know of anything in the store for that. But, boy, he was determined to sell that bench, it seemed.

Mike pointed toward the leg apparatus on the Keys bench and said, “You know you can move the leg attachment around and do, you know…”

“A reverse curl?” said Grits.

“Yeah,” said Mike. For a moment, Grits considered pressing the point that isolated leg curls and extensions really differed from fully dynamic presses or squats, but it was obvious that exercise physiology was not this guy’s strong suit. Maybe Mike was knowledgeable about other aspects of working out. So Grits pressed on and asked, “So what’s the difference in working out on a bench instead of one of the systems like the Body-Solid stuff.”

“The Body-Solid machine is for families or for, you know, people who don’t like to go to the gym or work out that much. Kinda lazy people.” Wait, what? Wow, did he just say that?!? Our Mystery Shopper had to steady himself to maintain his cover. After all, that was a pretty ridiculous statement and a completely unfair assumption at that. “If you wanna get ripped, this is what you need,” Mike continued, still convinced Grits was the rippin’ type of guy.

Things got a little erratic at this point, as Mike asked once again if Grits wanted free weights or something else. Huh? Hadn’t they been over this a minute ago? Grits reiterated that he had, in the past, used dumbbells on occasion, so Mike lifted the seat on the bench and demonstrated how a person could use free weights to do shoulder presses.

Grits said, “One of the things I like about the Bowflex is that I can do pull-downs and tricep stuff with the overhead bar.” To Mike’s credit, he quickly replied that there was a $75 overhead bar attachment for the Keys bench, though they didn’t have one on display. “We’ve got one in the back. You wanna see it?”

Grits, said yes, not realizing just how entertaining the sale was about to become…. Mike led our Mystery Shopper to a back storage room. He then stood on an old, seemingly discarded weight bench to peer at a long, flat box resting on a dusty wooden shelf. “If you want, I can put this together and show it to you.” Grits appreciated the salesperson’s willingness and determination, but he realized this would take significant time and effort, and since he wasn’t actually going to purchase anything, he told Mike he didn’t have to do that.

“Well, do you want to see it?” asked Mike. “Just stand on the bench.” Uhh, OK, this should be interesting, thought Grits, wondering if the store’s liability insurance covered falls off benches in the process of a sale. But duty called so, a few seconds later, our intrepid Mystery Shopper was standing on one leg, teetering on the bench, peering over the shelf to get a glimpse of a rough illustration of this black thing printed on a cardboard box. Note to retailers: It probably pushes the limits of your insurance policy to invite customers to stand on a narrow bench in your storage room. Trust us, maybe it’s best just to have everything on display in the store.

Having survived the balancing act on the backroom bench, Grits decided it was time to wrap up this visit before he hurt himself. He thanked Mike for his time and asked him for a business card. Mike wrote his name on the back of the card, shook Grits’ hand and said in a just-between-you-and-me kind of way, “Don’t worry, we can get you a good deal.”

SNEWS® View: We’ll give the store this much credit: Its salespeople will go to great lengths to make a sale. But that determination was overshadowed by several displays of lackluster sales technique. Let’s run through ’em:

1. When a customer walks through the door, you should cease your conversation behind the counter and recognize that customer, even just a smile or hello will do at first. As a matter of fact, go that extra step and lower your behind from the counter and try to stand there and appear interested.

2. Mike’s major mistake was that he made assumptions. For example, he did not ask questions to qualify the customer and assumed that our Mystery Shopper was an Arnold Schwarzenegger wanna-be. He likely made the assumption because the customer fit the demographic stereotype. Of course, you can’t judge a person’s workout preferences from their gender and age or even body type. Also, since the customer had been using a Bowflex for years, the salesperson should have made a logical assessment that the customer might seriously consider a similar, non-free-weight system. Especially a customer who mentions that he’s concerned about injury. Finally, the salesperson seemed fixated on price, and his first comment about the bench was the $300 price tag. Yes, people are concerned with price, but they ultimately buy something based on features — if the salesperson can sell it well.

3. The salesperson also made inaccurate, sweeping statements about the usefulness of certain equipment. His comment that the Body-Solid equipment was for families and lazy people showed a certain prejudice and lack of product knowledge. Didn’t his boss teach him that selling to families was actually important? Also, the “Bowflex-is-crap” comment lacked sensitivity at best.

4. Speaking of knowledge, the salesperson missed the mark when he suggested that the leg curls were a substitute for squats. He should have pointed out that some companies offer leg press attachments that can serve as a safe alternative. He could have also keyed in on the fact that the customer had used dumbbells and suggested lunges as another option. But, honestly, he should have also just suggested the person talk to a personal trainer for exercise recommendations since with such limited knowledge he couldn’t safely begin to suggest routines. What about that liability insurance?

5. The salesperson failed to listen carefully. He repeatedly asked if Grits preferred machines or free weights. Asking once should be enough, and his inattention was frustrating to our rather motivated Mystery Shopper. Do you really think a real shopper would stick around?

6. Customers really have no business in the storage room of a store. Period. And they certainly have no business climbing up on anything where they might fall. If this store had product literature available, the salesperson could have shown the customer the attachment in a brochure.

Overall, this could have been one of the more dismal experiences we have had in our Mystery Shopping endeavors. Not that a lot of the above isn’t pretty easily remedied, so at least that’s a ray of hope. We hope for the Fitness Outlet’s sake, we just hit a bad day.