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Mystery Shopper: Sleeping bag sale goes cold

In this Mystery Shopper scenario, we sent our operative, Agent Grits, to shop for a sleeping bag at a Washington D.C. specialty store – one with a historically great reputation for quality and service. Read on for another glimpse into a retail selling experience that any one of your customers at any one of your stores could have.

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This is another installment of our continuing and occasional series of stories about our mystery shopping experiences at outdoor stores around the country. Our intent in running these stories is and will always be as an educational tool. Even though we do mention the store name that was shopped, our goal is never to call onto the carpet any one store or any one salesperson. Frankly, we could perhaps go into the same store that did well on one day and find it flunks out completely on the next round. That’s why we stress this is about education. Everyone, good or bad, can learn from our experiences. This is really 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.

In this scenario, we sent our operative, Agent Grits, to shop for a sleeping bag at a Washington D.C. specialty store – one with a historically great reputation for quality and service. Read on for another glimpse into a retail selling experience that any one of your customers at any one of your stores could have.

It was a hot summer day in the Mid-Atlantic, the kind where you peel yourself off the car seat one layer at a time. But, our shopping operative – code name Grits — had more than heat on his brain. His thoughts turned to cold weather and warm sleeping bags as he strolled toward a good-looking shopping center. On one corner stood the entrance of Hudson Trail Outfitters, and oh what an entrance it was—high wood walls, a large decorative sign and inviting window displays. Top notch, all around.

At 11:47 our undercover “bag man” walked through the doors into an ante room where he rode an escalator, rising as the voice of Dylan echoed off the walls…”How does it feeeel, How does it feeeel…” Ascending into a cool breeze of air conditioning, Grits laughed and thought, “This must be what it’s like when a Dylan fan dies and ascends, ready to go knockin’ on Heaven’s door.

What he found at the top would surely be an outdoor customer’s idea of heaven. A large room spread before him, and in the slightly dim light he gazed at every imaginable category of outdoor gear—water filters, packs, bikes, you name it. To the left, behind an expansive cash wrap counter, a smiling female employee gave a sing-song greeting, a friendly hello, and our man was feeling good about the place.

Only a few shoppers drifted about the store, as a couple of employees wearing aprons assisted customers here and there. To the back of the store on the right lay his target—sleeping bags—and he headed there, zigzagging between a tight cluster of racks. More than a dozen bags—arranged by increasing temperature ratings from left to right—hung vertically in a wooden display. It looked like a well-equipped department, complete with a jam-packed Thermarest display and a raised platform filled with stones, allowing customers to get a realistic feel for a bag and sleeping pad right there in the store. Tacked to the bag rack were charts comparing the bags, which was a nice touch.

Our man browsed the bags, like a person searching his closet for a suitable shirt, and waited for an employee to take notice. Unfortunately, no one paid any attention, and by 11:51 he remained alone in this corner of the store. Thinking that maybe he needed to make his presence more obvious, Grits proceeded to wander nearby racks, occasionally staring at the cash/wrap counter, raising his chin and pitching his head side-to-side, like searching for a friend at a crowded party. You know, trying to look a little desperate.

After another 10 minutes ticked slowly by, Grits got the feeling that no salesperson would ever come the rescue, even if he jumped up and down while waving his hands like a drowning swimmer. Noticing that the left side of the store stretched farther back, he walked in that direction, and the girl who first greeted him passed by, smiled and said hi, though she didn’t offer assistance. Our man stood still, examining some clothing as another nearby employee discussed jacket choices with a customer. There was hope that the employee would break away for just a second to acknowledge our SNEWS® man, but no such luck, and another three or four minutes passed. Finally, the operative approached an apron-clad man in the clothing department, and read his name tag—we’ll call him Kevin.

“Hi Kevin,” said the agent. “I was wondering if you could show me some sleeping bags.”

Kevin wore a slightly pained expression and replied, “Yeah, but I’m terrible at them.” Of course, this did not inspire a lot of confidence, and for retail salespeople reading this, we don’t recommend it as a way to launch a successful sales pitch.

Walking toward the bags, Kevin added, “We have a guy who’s pretty good with them, but he’s not on the clock yet.” While the sale seemed like it was heading south, you had to appreciate his honesty and the fact that he mentioned that the store does, in fact, employ a bag guru who could help in the future. One would hope, no, make that expect, that a store of this caliber would at least train more than one employee in the basic art of selling sleeping bags – or are we being to optimistic?

“What are you looking for?” Kevin asked in a tone that was just a little too stern.

“I’m not quite sure. I’m going to be doing some winter camping with my friends, and I might do some mountaineering,” replied Grits.

The plan was to explore the salesperson’s knowledge of warmer bags, and the agent mentioned “mountaineering” because this is somewhat of a broad term. It would require Kevin to dig for the specifics and ask where the customer would be climbing and what type of expedition would it be. (Would he be staying in a bunkhouse as one might do on Rainier, or would he sleep in a tent on the flanks of a mountain, a situation requiring something warmer?)

“What temperature will you be in?” Kevin asked.

Trying to convey a certain lack of knowledge, Grits said, “I’m not really sure. Maybe down to zero?”

“That means you’ll probably need a synthetic bag because natural (down) bags aren’t usually that low,” said Kevin. OUCH! Too little information can be a dangerous tool in the hands of anyone attempting to sound knowledgeable on a subject they clearly know nothing about. With even five minutes of training, Kevin would have learned that there are down bags on the market that serve temperatures as low as 40 below. Then he added that cold-weather camping would prohibit buying one of the more lightweight bags. Granted, warmer bags will weigh more than those for fairer weather simply because they require more insulation, so he was partially correct. However, he failed to mention that down models are lighter than comparable synthetic fills in the identical temperature range.

While he was on the down/synthetic subject, there was hope that Kevin would raise the issue of staying dry, noting that wet synthetic bags retain their insulation qualities better than wet down bags, but it was clear that this sale wouldn’t reach that level of detail. In fact, at one point the salesperson said, “I don’t really know the intricacies of the different bags, or the differences in the fills.” ** Our operative so desperately wanted to refer this lost soul to the SNEWS® Training Center and the “How to Sell Sleeping Bags” guide, but that would have blown his cover, so he refrained. But if Kevin is now reading this, it’s at

He said we would have to think about the bag’s weight, and how far one would carry the bag. “If you’re just going to be car camping, you can get something heavier,” he noted. And our man said he would probably hike with the bag in more of an expedition-style trek.

“You’ll probably want one of these bags,” Kevin said, walking to the ones on the right of the display. “Hey, these are actually organized by temperature,” he added, as if he were surprised to find some competent level of organization. Could it be that this was Kevin’s first visit to the sleeping bag area? Grit’s confidence-meter plummeted toward the “abort mission” side of his shopping gauge.

Our agent took a few moments to gather himself as he looked at 5-degree and –5-degree bags from Moonstone, as well as a Mountain Hardwear bag, which lacked a temperature rating tag, as the others had.

“At this point, this is pretty much it,” Kevin said.

Pretty much it? Grits mentally paged through mounds of training notes, clinics and how-to guides trying to find where this new sales technique was recommended. Frankly, “this is pretty much it” is not exactly near the top of the hit parade of good phrases to use during a sale because it implies that the store’s ability to serve the customer is limited, the sale is concluded, and that at this point, the customer should not expect anything more – including information. A more appropriate comment might have been: “If you don’t see what you need in our current selection, I can check with our buyers to see if we can order whatever you need.” Alas, that didn’t happen.

Grits noted the prices of the Moonstone bags, $220 and $450, without balking at the numbers, but implying that he didn’t understand why one was so much more expensive.

“Wow, those are pretty expensive,” Kevin blurted (Our operative nearly started beating his head against the nearest wall – who is training the staff in this store he wondered?) Then, Kevin looked up at the shelves above the bag display and saw a 0-degree bag from The North Face packaged in a box marked with a price of $99. “Wow, that price is sick!” Kevin said. “I don’t know why that’s so cheap.” (Note to salespeople: try to avoid the words “cheap” and “sick” when working with a customer.) As Kevin grabbed a ladder and pulled down the box, Grits decided to play along and asked him why the bag was so “cheap.” He explained that it was still good quality, adding that The North Face began manufacturing overseas, enabling the company to reduce prices.

At this point, it really wouldn’t do much good to further dissect the salesperson’s knowledge – or complete lack of it — of product manufacturing, pricing, etc. Let’s just say he was obviously trying to offer up some company knowledge, which was at least an improvement over previous comments.

Our agent stood silent for a moment, and Kevin apparently noticed that the sale had reached a lull. To the salesperson’s credit, he tried to keep the conversation rolling and injected some enthusiasm, saying that it sounded like our SNEWS® man was going on some cool trips. But, other than The North Face box, he never took down a single bag to suggest that the customer examine the features, let alone offer the opportunity to lie in it.

“Well, you’ve given me some things to think about, but I’m not sure yet,” said Grits, implying that more information was needed to make a decision. But still, Kevin made no further moves. Though the rack of Thermarests stood right behind, he did not turn to them and attempt to pop one on the testing platform, flop a bag on it and suggest Grits climb in for a test run. Nor did he even attempt to offer up an alternate or add-on sale.

Grits thanked the salesperson for his help and turned to leave. As he was walking away, Kevin recommended making contact with the employee who knew the sleeping bags well. Our man said thanks, and strolled to the escalator, wondering why Kevin never once tried to go find another salesperson who might have known more – unless this store only had one person who could actually sell a sleeping bag. Scary thought. Grits also wondered why Kevin never once offered to provide him with catalog copy, comparison charts, technical printouts of information – anything that might have helped to further a sale along.

Making the slow descent, Grits felt not so much like he’d visited outdoor heaven, but more like a starving man who’d just spent an hour looking at wonderful pictures of food without any hope of actually getting fed.