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Mystery Shopper: Wow! A truly textbook example of salesmanship, customer service

Finally! A truly outstanding shopping experience with a salesman that knew exactly how to interact with the customer for a customized sale. Congratulations, Exercise Essentials in Madison, Ala.! Granted, this was only one shopping experience at one branch with one salesman, but one that sent us dancing out the door. Textbook customer service, perfect questions to aim the customer to the correct product, and great interaction.

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Finally! A truly outstanding shopping experience with a salesman that knew exactly how to interact with the customer for a customized sale. Congratulations, Exercise Essentials in Madison, Ala.! Granted, this was only one shopping experience at one branch with one salesman, but one that sent us dancing out the door. We wanted to celebrate with the release of a flock of doves or a bevy of balloons, and top that with a glass of aged champagne. By the way, Exercise Essentials has three locations, with its corporate headquarters in Knoxville, Tenn., another store in Nashville, and this store near Huntsville, Ala.

Sometimes our Mystery Shoppers feel certain that specialty retail is doomed. Having witnessed one sales blunder after another as we’ve shopped stores around the country — both large and small, long-established and newer, mom-and-pop and chains — they’ve often trudged back to the car shaking their head, certain that customer service has died and turned to dust. Then, just when they think all has been lost, they encounter a friendly, knowledgeable salesperson who restores all faith and hope.

Our Mystery Shopper Grits reports that his faith in specialty retail was restored after a recent visit to the Exercise Essentials fitness equipment store in Madison, Ala. (

On a blustery Saturday afternoon in October, Grits walked up to the store, which was tucked into a small shopping center. He pulled open a glass door and gazed about a tidy, well-stocked, square showroom with all manner of cardio machines lining the walls and a heaping helping of strength machines occupying a square section in the center. “This is a nice layout,” he thought to himself. A customer could easily walk around the store to browse the equipment, and machines were spaced nicely, allowing easy access. The lighting was perfect — not too bright, and not too dim. Uniform slatwall fixtures around the room gave a feeling of orderliness and structure.

Grits had been in the store maybe 10 seconds when a salesperson approached and asked thoughtfully, “Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?” (He was not wearing a name tag, but we later learned his name is Reginald.)

“Yeah, I’m looking for something for weight training,” Grits replied. “I’ve had a Bowflex for a few years, but I think I want to move on to something else. It’s an older model, and kind of inconvenient to use. Plus, I’m already benching all the weight that it has. I got it through mail order, and I haven’t been in here before, so I’m not sure what I should check out.”

Reginald said, “OK, tell me a bit about your goals. Are you looking to bulk up, stay toned or are you working out for weight loss?” This is great, thought Grits, a solid beginning. He’s asking questions to qualify the customer, and not just making any assumptions or directing to a piece where perhaps the company has offered the best spiffs. Grits said that he was mainly lifting for weight loss and to just maintain his health.

“OK, is space an issue?” asked Reginald. Ooooo, another good question. “Well, I have my equipment in part of the garage, but space is a bit limited.” And Reginald replied, “OK, I have several things I can show you.” No hemming and hawing. The salesperson looked Grits in the eyes and spoke confidently.

The two moved briskly to the other opposite side of the room to a lineup of Body-Solid home gyms, displayed left to right by increasing features and price points. Before recommending any of the machines, Reginald asked Grits what type of leg exercises he planned on doing. Obviously, this salesperson knew how to further qualify the customer. He’s whittling it down, thought Grits, homing in on the perfect match.

“Well, I’ve been doing squats with a bar, but I’m worried about hurting my back.”

Reginald took him to the machine on the far right, the G8, which included a leg workout bench, plus a leg press attachment. He explained that this could be a good option for an extensive leg regimen, but Grits noted that the machine might take up too much space.

“Let’s take a look at this next one, then,” Reginald said, as he moved to the neighboring G4. “The good thing about these machines is you can add attachments,” he said, explaining that Grits could add a leg press station to the more compact G4 and have an alternative to squats. Reginald’s demeanor was a comfortable mix — he seemed earnest in finding a solution, but not pushy. He mentioned that the store carried a range of products that were flexible enough to meet a variety of needs.

This salesman was obviously on the ball. But it was time to throw a tougher pitch and see if he could knock it out of the park: “So, how is this machine different from my Bowflex in the way that it works you?”

“You know how the Bowflex works all those stabilizer muscles? Well, this machine also has independent motion in the arms,” said Reginald. “Here, let me show you something.” Reginald quickly took Grits to the next machine to the left, a G3. “You see how this one has one solid piece for the arms. It’s possible that your stronger arm could compensate for the weaker one.” He looked Grits in the eyes to make sure he understood. (Again, all-important eye contact!) Then, quickly moving back the G4, he unhooked the arms, and said, “You see? These move separately so one arm can’t compensate for the other.”

Impressive. Reginald was building a bridge between the customer’s previous product and the Body-Solid machine. Even without asking for more information, the salesperson identified a feature that the customer would undoubtedly find important and explained and demonstrated in a truly understandable way. But he was also clever enough to explain how the customer would benefit by trading up to this gym.

“Now, I’m not putting down the Bowflex,” said Reginald. “It’s light, easy to work with and maybe not as intimidating as some other systems. But some people say that its resistance is not constant.” Motioning with his arms, he demonstrated the stages of a bench press. “On the Bowflex, at the beginning, it’s not as hard to press, then in the middle of the motion it gets really hard, then it’s a bit easier at the top of the motion. With this machine,” he said, nodding toward the Body Solid product, “the resistance is constant.”

Not only was this salesperson able to articulate the features of the products in the store, he was able to differentiate their performance from other products on market and do it in detail. Very simply, this type of expertise defines what makes a specialty store valuable.

“You know the best thing to do is have you try this out,” he said, inviting our Mystery Shopper to sit down on the machine. At this point, Grits wanted to leap into the air, pump his fist and holler, “Yes!” Our Mystery Shoppers get pretty excited when they witness a textbook example of great salesmanship. Of course, there is no more effective way to sell a product than to encourage a customer to touch it, feel it and try it. It’s amazing how many salespeople fail to grasp this concept.

Restraining himself and trying not to wipe the giddy smile off his face, Grits did a few presses and noted that the bar handles curved upward, rather than going straight across. “That’s actually more ergonomic,” said Reginald. “It’s easier on your rotator cuff.” (More helpful info. This sale was rockin’.) The salesperson then recalled and re-iterated what Grits had mentioned earlier in their conversation that he was maxing out the available weight on the Bowflex, showing he also knew how to listen: “Another good thing about this machine is you can upgrade the weight,” said Reginald.

“I’m going to measure the amount of room I have, because this looks like a good option,” said our Mystery Shopper.

“OK, excuse me for a second, and I’ll be right back,” Reginald said. He soon returned with a product information flyer with his business card stapled to it — gosh, golly, without our shopper even asking for them! Grits envisioned a homerun ball sailing over an outfield wall. Folks, this is how it’s done.

Grits asked whether there were other brands in the store he could check out. “Oh, yeah, we work with a lot of good vendors,” replied the salesperson.

Grits pointed to a Nautilus gym across the room and asked how that differed from the Body-Solid equipment. Reginald said the Nautilus machine was more “finished” in certain areas and pointed out that the material covering the padding on the Body-Solid machine was folded and tucked, whereas the Nautilus padding was smooth without folds. “Feel this,” he said, wrapping a hand around a metal portion of the G4. “You feel how this is rough, and the Nautilus metal is smooth and painted.” He then added, “They’re really both good pieces of equipment.” Grits appreciated that the salesperson was honest enough to acknowledge differences between the products, although Reginald was obviously a deft enough salesperson to quickly ensure our Mystery Shopper that he could still get a quality piece of equipment for the lower price.

Grits didn’t ask for much more detail on the Nautilus machine, and Reginald likely sensed that this customer was more interested in something closer to $1,000 rather than $2,000. He didn’t push the more expensive equipment, which was understandable. “I don’t want to get you into more than you need,” said Reginald. “I want to match you with the best piece of equipment for you.”

Completely happy with his experience, our Mystery man thanked the salesperson for his time and said he’d double-check his available garage space and make a decision.

“Just call me or come back in if I can answer any more questions,” Reginald said. And Grits departed with a smile, wondering for a moment if he indeed might be able to squeeze one more thing into the garage.

SNEWS® View:
Why was this shopping experience superior? Let us count the ways.
1. Basic salesmanship — Sure, Reginald knew his products backward and forward, but beyond that he knew how to ask questions and listen. Armed with some key information, he quickly matched the customer with the right product. Plus, he was friendly, enthusiastic and paying attention. (Remember the eye contact?) A sale will go much better if the salesperson appears fully engaged and genuinely interested.
2. A step-by-step approach — Reginald started with broad questions — what was our Mystery Shopper trying to achieve — and then systematically narrowed the focus of the sale, until he got down to very specific features and benefits. In addition, he didn’t have to point out every single aspect of the machine to effectively sell it. Rather, he stuck to the important points, highlighting the aspects that he knew were most important to the customer. Finally, he provided literature and included a business card, establishing that store as a helpful source of information for the future.
3. Market and product knowledge — Reginald knew the details of the machines, plus the performance characteristics of competing products, like the Bowflex. In fact, there was only one time that Reginald looked at a hangtag for information — when Grits asked about the specific footprint dimensions of the G4.
4. Hands-on approach — The salesperson took that all-important step in asking our Mystery Shopper to actually try the machine.
5. Proper Priorities — This store obviously teaches its employees to be honest with customers to earn their trust and long-term support. Reginald never got dollar signs in his eyes and did not try to sell the customer the most expensive thing on the floor once he sensed that it would be more than the customer needed or really wanted. He also knew how to not just sell on lowest price, but targeted quickly what the customer seemed to be comfortable with.

Can we dance a jig? Thanks, Exercise Essentials!