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Retail Learning

Mystery Shopper: Easy-going salesperson listens, nails customer needs in fitness gear

It was a chilly, fall day in Chicago. Dark skies indicated rain was coming. The wind was blowing. And that made it a great time to follow-up on the need for some indoor training equipment for expanding a home workout regimen. Our mystery shopper hit Chicago Home Fitness to test the sales staff's skills at selling home gyms.

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Our goal with 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 right and what, if anything, went wrong and, hopefully, to offer a learning experience to any and all retailers. 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.

It was a chilly, fall day in Chicago. Dark skies indicated rain was coming. The wind was blowing. And that made it a great time to follow-up on the need for some indoor training equipment for expanding a home workout regimen.

Claudia, a longtime runner, had decided that although she was thin and pretty fit, she needed to do more strength-training, both for her muscles and her bones as a woman who wasn’t 20-something anymore. Nestled in an area where she often shopped was a Chicago Home Fitness that she had seen a few times before. This time, she pulled in the lot and decided to take a look at her options. Maybe she could even find out enough to drop some hints to her husband for Christmas!

The store was bright, well-lit, open and welcoming with a high industrial-looking ceiling, new paint and colorful posters on windows and walls. Cheery in it spirit, it even smelled clean. She did wonder for a fleeting moment if it were open, although it was mid-afternoon, since she not only didn’t see any customers but also didn’t see any employees! She decided to swing open the door and take a look around. Within a moment a fit, thin, very friendly man popped up from behind a desk that was sort of nestled into an alcove in the side. With a logo’d shirt, it was clear he worked there. “Boy, you are certainly hidden back there,” Claudia joked. He grinned, and asked what was on her mind.

“I’ve been thinking I should do some strength-training,” she explained, somewhat sheepishly saying she had relied on her running and this was not something she had done, but from reading magazines she realized she should.

The salesman didn’t miss a beat: “Strength-training is great for building bone density.” This guy had already targeted who she was, what she wanted, and the hot buttons to hit. He was also casual and quite easy-going in selling and talking. He was fit, but not a beefy fit that could be intimidating. It could feel odd for any woman to be in a large store alone with a man, but he was so friendly, it was all quite comfortable.

He went on to explain how one could start quite simply with rubber tubes, jump to dumbbells and maybe a bench or ball, or try an entire home gym.

“What’s best?” Claudia asked.

“I like these functional trainers,” he said, pointing at a small Precor cable gym. “I just bought one myself.”

He walked her over to it and Claudia fell silent as she stared at the machine, trying to figure it out. At first glance, it seemed a bit much. “That’s a little daunting,” she responded.

“You can do all kinds of exercises with it,” he said, not sounding like a salesman but somebody who truly was interested in Claudia’s needs.

“OK, show me,” she said. He proceeded to show a few basics for back and chest, how you can use a bench, how you can move the cams up and down to perform exercises low or high, with both arms or one. He never mentioned price, discounts or sales — a rare experience in our long series of mystery shoppers — and chose instead to talk about features and benefits.

Claudia was intrigued. She noted how small the machine was and mentioned how that appealed to her, but then asked, “How will I know what to do?” The salesman explained how the store has an arrangement with a personal trainer not far away who would do a short session with her when she first bought it, and show her how to workout with the piece.

“Is that part of the price?” she asked.

“Yes, the first hour is free,” he explained, adding that, of course, she could decide if she wanted more sessions for a fee after that.

“Oh that’s nice!” she said. She walked closer to the piece and handled the straps and bars, thinking he might ask her to try it, but he didn’t. She wished he had. Instead, he just stood back and shoved his hands in his two front pockets. Claudia looked up at the tag hanging on the front and said, “So, $2,700?”

“They are all 15 percent off right now,” he replied.

Although Claudia was now attracted to the gym — and found the price within reason — she still wanted to see more to make sure she understood her choices. “Now, about that other stuff you mentioned?”

He walked toward the back of the store, past a rack of dumbbells, directly to a small PowerBlock set, sitting next to a larger set. He explained how the PowerBlock set worked, welcomed her to try them, and Claudia exclaimed how great they seemed since they were so small — and how they were easy to adjust.

“Wow, these are nice! And they’d be all I need,” she said. Seemingly perceiving her enthusiasm for them, he noted how she could just add a bench and have a good setup for less than $500. She did some quick math and said, “Less than $500?” “$200 and $150 so $350… “Yeah, actually less than $400,” he added. He pointed to some rubber tubing and said that he’d suggest she also get a couple of those since then she could target her back too, which the weights alone might not do as well.

Again, a bit concerned about being lost, she asked about the personal trainer option, but he said that wasn’t part of this deal. The store did have some books, and he said he could also show her the exercises. He said he could run her through all she needed, no problem, and she could even drop in after a purchase if she had more questions too.

“Cool! I’m excited now,” Claudia exclaimed. “That looks like something I could do.” She talked aloud about how maybe this would be a good place to start, and she could always add on and not waste anything she did buy.

At this point, he stood silently listening to her talk. Claudia liked that the salesman didn’t feel the need to hear himself talk all the time but let her talk, which gave him the selling insights he needed.

“OK, then, let me consider that. I like that!” she said, asking if he had something she could take home to look at.

He zipped back into the alcove, efficiently opening some file cabinets for materials and gave her brochures on each piece, wrote the prices on them, and attached his card. Claudia liked the fact the alcove was clean and neat too. Finally, she learned his name from glancing at his card! It would have been a nice touch for him to introduce himself earlier after he’d established rapport with her.

She was now super stoked about what she found out in a mere 15 minutes and shook his hand, saying she would be back.

Just as she was turning to leave, a 30-something man entered the store. Claudia noticed out of the corner of her eye that the salesman was a chameleon, in a good way. He seemed to adopt a different body carriage immediately as he listened to the man standing in front of a row of treadmills who said, “My wife wants a treadmill for our anniversary. So what’s the difference between all these bad boys?”

SNEWS® View: The salesman at Chicago Home Fitness seemed very comfortable with what he was doing, what he was selling and had an easy-going manner that exuded casual confidence. He allowed the customer to talk, instead of just spewing technical specs and prices. Because of that, he seemed to pretty quickly figure out the customer’s needs and hone in on that. If there was anything he could have done, we’d say he could have perhaps asked her more about how much running she did and maybe if she had any experience at all lifting weights — of course, it seemed pretty likely from what she said that she didn’t, but it wouldn’t have hurt to ask. Since a rapport was established, it would have been nice to have him introduce himself too at some point — maybe not at first, since that can feel a bit contrived on the chummy front, but certainly at the end when he handed her the card rather than leaving her to simply read the card. Although our mystery shopper didn’t linger for the ensuing sale to the male customer, we’ll bet that sale would have been entirely different — likely filled with more technical information than Claudia received, and also geared toward a man’s needs and feelings, rather than a woman’s. A good salesman can target his pitch to suit a particular type of customer, and this guy appeared to have that skill. All in all, a good job. We’d go back to buy.

–SNEWS® Editors