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Mystery Shopper: Should customers have to work this hard?

Our team had driven by the huge sign and large glass windows facing Interstate 80 in Sacramento hundreds of times -- since the Fitness Outlet Exercise Equipment has a superior location on the main highway between San Francisco or Sacramento and Lake Tahoe and all points east -- but we'd never stepped inside. We'd heard good things, and know the store owners' reputations as solid. The destination was ripe for a mystery shopping experience.

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SNEWS® heads to Sacramento, Calif., for yet another in our popular series of Mystery Shoppers. We love to have good experiences — and we have indeed had some super ones — although sometimes we are disappointed, as unfortunately was the case this time. 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.

Our team had driven by the huge sign and large glass windows facing Interstate 80 in Sacramento hundreds of times — since the Fitness Outlet Exercise Equipment has a superior location on the main highway between San Francisco or Sacramento and Lake Tahoe and all points east — but we’d never stepped inside. We’d heard good things, and know the store owners’ reputations as solid. The destination was ripe for a mystery shopping experience, so we contacted Agent Smooth and sent him in — undercover, of course.

Smooth arrived at the storefront after a few less than smooth missed turns — while the store’s sign is a can’t-miss-it sight from the freeway, getting there requires a bit of intuitive thought to successfully meander behind other store buildings to the freeway frontage. The directions are on the store, but, unfortunately, you don’t see them until you’re past it. Additional roadside signage would be mighty helpful.

It was just before 10 a.m., on May 10, a Wednesday — not exactly prime shopping time — so the parking lot was understandably empty. Fitness Outlet was tucked onto the end of a strip of stores that included Barbecues Galore & Fireplaces, a barstool and dinette shop, an industrial supply company and a fly-fishing retailer. Smooth had time to notice all the other stores and gaze in the large glass windows of each because even at 10:01, the Fitness Outlet was not yet open — the open sign was not on nor was there any sign of life inside the store. Not feeling like shopping for either a barstool or a fireplace, Smooth wandered back to the front doors of the Fitness Outlet and noticed another man standing in the shade. As Smooth tried the door with a bit of impatience (it was now 10:04), the man turned to Smooth and told him the manager was late — and yes, he worked there. The conversation went no further — too bad really since the salesman-in-waiting could have started his get-to-know-you chitchat and established an early rapport.

Sure enough, a car roared up, and out leapt another man, presumably the store manager, shaking his head and mumbling something about an “epic morning of engine problems” as he hastily unlocked the door and both shot inside. Smooth was left standing near the door … not sure if he should enter or wait for an invitation. Quickly, lights came on and, since the door had been unlocked, Smooth felt he now had invitation enough so he swung open the door and stepped inside.

A quick glance around revealed a very open and well-lit store full of weight machines, steppers, ellipticals, bikes and more. It was sea of white, black and chrome, but at least it was a well-organized sea. The wide, carpeted aisle from the entrance to the back counter and registers, where the manager was now seated alongside the employee, left Smooth wondering if someone had parted the sea of steel just before he entered.

The manager, who later introduced himself as John, looked up as Smooth approached the counter and he asked how he could help. Smooth resisted the urge to fire off a smart-ass response that opening the store on time would be a good start, and told John that he was here at the behest of his personal trainer who told Smooth he needed to start taking stretching more seriously to recover from some injuries he’d been experiencing of late.

John told Smooth that his store sold a type of stretching cage called the TrueStretch, but he didn’t have one on the floor to show him because of space. As Smooth was wondering why a store would sell something it couldn’t put on the floor, John added that he didn’t think Smooth needed a stretching cage anyway.

“You can do just about anything you need with stuff you already have — chairs, a towel, straps,” John said. “You don’t need to buy anything special.”

Smooth mentioned that he really felt he needed some stretching stuff and that he wasn’t very good at stretching without some gear, which is why his trainer sent him here.

The other salesperson, obviously very fit by his trim and cut appearance, chimed in, “Well, where, exactly are your problem areas? … Let’s start there.”

Ahh, good question and thank you for asking it, Smooth thought.

“Gluts, hamstrings are always tight, which causes my back to sometimes go into spasm,” Smooth explained. “And I have some knee pain that we think is linked to an IT band issue and tight hip flexors. My trainer told me something about stretching devices, because I am terrible about stretching on my own, so I thought I’d drop in and see what you have.”

The second salesman Clayton (Smooth learned his name was Clayton, only because he asked) responded by telling Smooth that the secret to a good stretching program was not spending money, but by establishing consistency.

“I used to be a competitive kick boxer,” Clayton said. “Every morning, first thing, I stretch. You should too. Eat lots of bananas, and drink plenty of water.”

Smooth nodded. Yup, good advice, but he had come to the store to try to buy something that he thought would help him. He really wanted some stretching device or aid. “So, you guys have nothing to help a person like me perform some basic stretches?” Smooth asked, wondering why it should be this hard for a customer to help a salesperson make a sale.

“We have balls over there,” John pointed to his left where, sure enough, a few stability balls sat on the floor. “Those are good for stretching the back, but you can’t really do much else.” Gee, hope that doesn’t get back to the accessory company, but we weren’t there for that … this time.

John then suggested Smooth go to a bookstore and get a book on stretching and then head over to the Sports Authority or someplace similar that sold straps and stretching cords. “You could also get a bar for across your shoulders which helps you stretch by twisting back and forth.” (Oh, ouch, we thought, since those old-school twisting stretches are mostly ill-advised, especially for someone with possible back problems, as Smooth had mentioned.)

Never before had Smooth encountered such difficulty in actually making a purchase. If books and cords or straps were advised, why didn’t the store have some? He had to admire the fact that both John and Clayton truly wanted to be sure his needs were met and that Smooth was not spending money unnecessarily. Still, rather than pound his head on the counter and begin screaming, “I just want to buy something!” Smooth remained calm and asked, one more time, “You mean, you guys have nothing for someone who wants to learn more about stretching?”

John nodded, and got up from his chair to lead Smooth past the balls and over to a back corner Smooth hadn’t noticed before where, sure enough, there were two Harbinger stretch programs in boxed sets, each with a set of ropes and an instructional DVD on using the flexibility program. But John backed him right out of the sale one more time by adding, as he handed Smooth a box, “But you really don’t need anything like this. You just need some basic straps.”

Smooth nodded, and then decided he’d lead John back to the beginning of the conversation where he mentioned something about a stretching cage.

“I know you said you don’t have one on the floor, but do you sell, what was it, the TrueStretch thing on the web?” Smooth asked.

John nodded and led Smooth back to the counter and a computer, where John pulled up the True Fitness website and began to show Smooth the details of the TrueStretch. John was very knowledgeable as he explained the various features and benefits.

When Smooth asked about the price, though, John began looking around the True website to find it — at which point Smooth casually mentioned, “You did say you guys sold this online? Perhaps you have a price on your own site?”

John laughed that he didn’t think of that and, with a few clicks, showed Smooth the True Stretch and the price — $1,000. He mentioned to Smooth that while he’d love to have one of these on the floor to show him, there wasn’t sufficient room, and frankly not much demand.

“Well, at $1,000, I can see why they might not be flying off the floor,” Smooth joked.

“It’s true,” John added, “you have to be really serious about your stretching at that price.”

That left Smooth wondering how much more adamant he needed to be so he’d be taken seriously about his desire to buy some stretching gear — shopping in a stretcher perhaps and complaining of muscle misery while waving a bundle of greenbacks?

With no energy left to try to wring any more out of the experience, Smooth told John thanks for the help and began walking toward the door.

“See you later, boss!” Clayton called after Smooth as he headed out the door. Sigh…

SNEWS® View: While we LOVE the fact that both John and Clayton were so personable, and were in no hurry to simply close a sale just because the customer was in the mood to buy, the fact is with a bit of knowledge about stretching, and how to properly use straps and balls and even foam rollers, this store could and should be making stretching product sales both big and small — lots of them.

Stretching is a category that is grossly misunderstood by retailers — retailers who should know MUCH better. If you have any doubts, see our “Stretching the Imagination” story in the GearTrends® Fitness 2006 magazine, mailing to SNEWS® subscribers at the end of June and available online at in early July.

Perhaps the reason Fitness Outlet doesn’t have much call for stretching devices and accessories is the store, one, doesn’t know how to sell them or even use the items if they had them and, two, it doesn’t have much to show in the store, proving once again, you can’t sell what you don’t have.

Shopping — and BUYING — shouldn’t be so difficult.