Retail Learning

Mystery Shopper: A passionate Nordic walking sales guy inspires purchases

The girlfriends had gone for their weekly walk together that Sunday morning in Albuquerque, N.M., and were discussing an article in the morning's paper about something new to both of them called Nordic walking. Always looking for something interesting to mix up the workout routine, Jackie and Jane decided to head to Sportz Outdoor for a look-see and to learn more since the store was cited at the end of the story as the place to go for poles specific to the endeavor.

Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

SNEWS® was down in New Mexico recently for another in our popular Mystery Shopping series. 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.

The girlfriends had gone for their weekly walk together that Sunday morning in Albuquerque, N.M., and were discussing an article in the morning’s paper about something new to both of them called Nordic walking. Always looking for something interesting to mix up the workout routine, Jackie and Jane decided to head to Sportz Outdoor for a look-see and to learn more since the store was cited at the end of the story as the place to go for poles specific to the endeavor.

Finding it wasn’t an issue since its large sign grabbed them from quite a distance away and parking was easy. They ambled in together early that afternoon, coming in the front door of the spacious and clean store, pausing for a minute to take a glance around. No greetings and no sales personnel in sight to ask about the equipment or about where to look, so they turned right (as, of course, most shoppers do) and shopped along the circular “race track” pattern set up by the store, stopping to finger shoes or tops along the way that caught their eyes. With the husbands off golfing, they were in no hurry and planned to just shop and hang out that afternoon.

About five minutes later and still without greeting, they were in the rear center of the store and saw some poles. “This must be them,” Jane said to Jackie, then noticed a TV hung above their heads playing a video of some people walking with poles. A couple of stout women were watching the TV intently, holding poles and listening to a man who wore a Sportz Outdoor shirt (also holding poles) interject passionately here and there to expand on some points mentioned. Seems Jackie and Jane weren’t the only ones to have seen the story in the local paper that morning.

Not wanting to intrude but still wanting to listen, the two edged closer to hear what was going on. Sportz Outdoor guy didn’t see or acknowledge them, he was so wrapped up in the video and the women. Finally a couple of minutes later, he turned, said he was about done and would be with them in a couple of minutes. “That’s OK,” Jane said. “We’re watching too. We saw the article in the paper this morning.”

“Oh great! It’s amazing what a little promotion will do,” he said, then turned back to finish up with the women.

As the other women were ready to head to the register to buy their new Exel poles, Jackie asked if they’d seen the article too. Turns out they had. In fact, they’d heard about this Nordic walking stuff months ago but couldn’t find a store that knew anything, having tried comfort footwear shops and the like, so they had tried Nordic walking with some old trekking poles although they said they weren’t that comfortable. When they read the article, they hopped to it, excited about the opportunity. Then the two proceeded to rave about how much they loved it (one had foot problems) as well as rave about the poles they were about to buy, nearly stepping all over Sportz Outdoor guy’s sales territory.

As they started to leave, they asked the guy if he got commission and if they should mention his name, “Yes, but it’s so small, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s more important to me that you asked.” Now THAT was one slick response!

“OK, what can I help you with?” he turned to us and asked. Odd line really since the two were obviously there for Nordic walking info and, honestly, didn’t know where to start with questions. Jackie finally said, “Well, we saw the article and we thought we’d come and check it out.”

Sportz Outdoor guy proceeded to tell the two how he and others at the store had seen a teeny bit in the newspaper back in May promoting this Nordic walking workshop that was to be held in late May. Although the store had carried poles and accessories for nearly two years, he said it just kind of hung around and didn’t sell much, partly because nobody really knew anything about it. So five staff members on their own decided to go. He said the independent instructor, who was sponsored by an area fitness studio, was fantastic and taught the 75 or so in attendance well. “I’ve been Nordic walking for two weeks now, and I’ve lost five pounds!” he said. Of course, he didn’t seem to notice that one of the two women was actually so thin the last thing she likely wanted was to lose weight. And, no, he hadn’t asked anything about why they were interested or what they did currently or if they had any injuries. Of course, Sportz Outdoor isn’t a fitness store so the staff may not be trained to ask those kinds of things. Still, selling Nordic walking is selling an activity as much as it is selling equipment, and sales staff should likely be taught about that line of fitness questioning.

Then he launched into explaining technique, telling them along the way that they should walk with “amplitude,” although neither was really sure what he meant by that. Finally, Jackie said, “Amplitude?” But he was so excitedly delivering his how-to speech he didn’t hear her. That aside, he delivered a concise and easy-to-follow technique demonstration, then had each follow him one at a time along the back wall, around some tents and back. He taught the stages of learning to plant and push in a well-organized manner. (The women later found out he had been a ski instructor so he understood the plant-and-push technique already since it is so similar to cross-country skiing. At one point he even said, NORDIC walking because it’s like NORDIC skiing without snow.)

When he had the two hold the poles, Jackie’s and Jane’s eyes opened wide, “They’re so light!” they said. He had handed them the low-end Exel poles that cost $59 and, without explaining other models or the Leki poles that hung there, he said these were the best ones for them. He also said he could give them the Exel DVD for them to use for reference and that he thought it was really good. In fact, he could loan them poles for free to try for a couple of days if they left a credit card imprint. They promised they’d do that when they were both going to be in town, but for now, were interested in the poles and their differences.

He explained the ergonomic handles, the reason for the wrist loops, the small baskets at the end, the ability of some to collapse, and again said the Exel pair for $59 was the one to get. “Is this the only one?” Jane asked. He said, no, but the other brand and other models cost more and he didn’t think we needed them. “I see the others come with a DVD too,” Jane said, noting the DVD packaged with the Leki poles. Sportz Outdoor guy quickly added that the staff had watched that DVD when they first got the poles, didn’t think it was very good because it was “just a bunch of stiff people walking around with poles” and “we didn’t get it.”

Of course, he added, “Neither of (the companies) have done a good job promoting this” and that the workshop in town turned the tide for the store and himself, with sales now coming.

Jackie wanted to know why the other poles cost more and sales guy explained the others were made of carbon fiber (retails for $99 to $119) and were a lot lighter and more durable, whereas the ones he suggested were made of fiberglass and would do the job. So why would somebody buy the others, the women wanted to know. “It’s like some people who want a BMW when a Honda will do,” he said, noting that, of course, he’d gladly sell the more expensive ones if they wanted them. Jackie said she actually liked the grip on the less expensive poles (it wasn’t curved), while Jane felt more comfortable with the curved grip.

He went back to explaining the technique, which he did quite well, likely because as a ski instructor he was practiced at breaking things down. Sportz Outdoor guy (we still didn’t have a name and he didn’t have on a name tag) must have spent nearly 20 minutes with our mystery shoppers alone explaining the how-to’s. As the women got ready to leave, feeling fully informed and just wanting a chance to rent a pair for a weekend to try it out first, they thanked him for spending so much time with them and asked for his name so they could use it when they came back in if he wasn’t there. That’s when the smiling, helpful, friendly guy explained he was only there three days a week because he was actually retired but did this to keep from turning into a reclusive grumpy old retired guy. Then he turned on his humor, mimicking a grumpy old man carping at neighbors, wearing black socks pulled up high on his calf.

For the next 10 minutes he had the women in stitches, they were all just laughing and having a great time. Jackie and Jane finally dragged themselves away to get on with their afternoon, grinning big silly grins all the way out the door, still chuckling.

“Is he always like that?” they asked the young woman now at the register near the door, with big smiles on their faces.

“Oh, yes,” she said, grinning back and waving. “Have a good day.”

SNEWS® View: Have a good day indeed. The sales guy had not only left no gaps in the knowledge base for our shoppers but educated them well, showed passion, was honest (maybe to a fault) and inspirational, and then proceeded to make them smile and laugh. Indeed, they would come back to make their Nordic walking gear purchase and would hope to do it with him.

What SNEWS® learned, however, is that the two pole companies still haven’t managed the outreach they should. Of course, it’s not as if they can cover every store in the nation, but their reps in an area should know enough to leave the staff at a store informed and inspired enough to sell. In this case, we learned that the gear had just hung around on a back rack for almost two years until this one workshop came to town. Suddenly, the phone was ringing and people were coming in to buy. And all it took was ONE story in a Sunday supplement of the area paper. How easy would it be for the companies to write their own stories (without a brand-specific slant to keep the papers happy), give them to their accounts, and then let each store add a tag at the bottom with their name and submit them to the local paper? That’s a first step.

Meanwhile, one of the few things that didn’t happen during this experience was a greeting upon entrance (since a woman was at the counter when we left, we guess she may have taken a bathroom break). Unfortunately, our effervescent sales guy also didn’t have on a name tag, didn’t introduce himself until we asked, and didn’t have cards to give us because he was part-time — not his fault and something for a store to consider for part-timers. Cards come so cheap these days. And he sold ONE product and actually dissed the others slightly until we asked about them specifically. Not good manners really. We could have seen him saying how much he liked the one model, but then just explaining the others and their benefits rather than forcing us to pull the information out of him.

Still, we got all we needed and we’d go back in a blink.