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Retail Learning

Mystery Shopper: Product knowledge, hands-on demos go long way in making sale

On the corner of Broadway and 7th in Portland, Ore., our Mystery Shopper spied The Mountain Shop in an older historic-looking building. With the weather warming up, our shopper wanted to track down some gift ideas for her backpacking boyfriend. Was the store up to the challenge?

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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.

On the corner of Broadway and 7th in Portland, Ore., our Mystery Shopper spied The Mountain Shop in an older historic-looking building and decided to tuck into the small parking lot behind it. Meg strolled in and found a multi-level retail store, clean and well-organized, with partially exposed brick walls and filled with outdoor and ski equipment. Her task for this assignment was to be that shopper that probably comes into your store periodically: someone looking for a gift for an avid backpacker or other outdoors person, but isn’t quite sure what to buy.

Although it was about 4 p.m. on a Thursday, the store was hopping with at least three employees, each with a customer, so Meg never got an initial greeting upon entering. She scanned the store’s first floor and eyed the objects of her mission toward the back: a camping section with various accessories like stoves, cookware, water purifiers and headlamps, as well as sleeping bags and pads. A quick scan showed neatly merchandised displays with about two to four brands per product category.

Less than five minutes into her shopping, a salesman, who had been in the same vicinity, finished talking with a customer about a tent on display and turned to Meg, asking, “Are you figuring it out all right?”

“Actually, I do need help,” she said to Black Shirt (we’ll call him that, since he didn’t wear a name tag and never introduced himself). “Since the weather is warming up, my boyfriend and I are going to be backpacking more and we have a lot of older gear we want to replace. His birthday is coming up, and I wanted to get him something special and different.”…

The approach: Demo’ing products

“What kind of stove do you have?” he asked, leading her over to the stove display.

When Meg responded that they had an older Whisperlite, he asked if the stove would be used by more than two people, and if they used bagged food more or cooked. She said they leaned toward bagged food because they logged a lot of miles. Black Shirt’s enthusiasm was palpable as he grabbed a Jetboil PCS off an end cap.

“This stove is so sweet,” he said. “It’s called a Jetboil because it’s way more fast, uses less fuel to do it, and all packs down nice and small.”

Black Shirt went on to explain how the company built the stove and the pot to work together, pointing out the heat exchange ring and how it trapped the heat, and demonstrating how the stove and fuel canister packed into the pot for one compact unit. He noted that you could cook in it, but it did have a narrower pot opening that could be limiting and was used more for boiling water. He added that she could also buy an additional pot, so each person could have his or her own and have more options. 

Turning to a stove, he demonstrated how to fire it up and showed how the flame could be regulated.

When Meg expressed concern that it might be limiting if they wanted to cook more than bagged food, Black Shirt pointed to other brands on the shelf and how different pots and pans could be used with these alternatives. He grabbed an Optimus pot and pointed out that it had a similar heat exchange ring on the base, so it offered similar abilities but didn’t limit cooking choices. He demonstrated how it could work in tandem with a Snow Peak Giga stove, saying that stove had an auto igniter, wider flame distribution, total flame control and simmered.

“I own a Snow Peak and I love it,” he told Meg. “I used it all the time, but now I have a Jetboil. I’m going by myself and using the bagged food mostly.”

As they wound down with the stoves, Black Shirt led Meg to the sleeping bag section, saying, “A stove is probably one of the first things you want to upgrade with your equipment. Stoves and sleeping bags — those things that are a higher percentage of the weight; ounces add up to pounds.”…

The approach: Offering options

“If you want to get lightweight — a tent and sleeping bag are the two bigger percentages of your total weight,” he noted.

He compared a Marmot bag to a Feathered Friends bag, noting they both were made with premium down, had water-resistant shells, weighed in at about 2 pounds, and then mimicked with his hands about the size they packed down. He owned the Feathered Friends bag and liked how it was manufactured in Seattle, another Northwestern city as well making it “Made in the USA.”

While going over the details, Black Shirt suggested to Meg she consider a gift card. “Gift cards are always nice. That way he could come here and make whatever decisions he wants.”

“I really like giving an actual gift over a gift certificate,” she said.

He conceded that not everyone liked to give gift cards and that if she bought a big-ticket item, like a sleeping bag or tent, it would be like getting him a gift card if he wanted an alternative model. He explained about the company’s return policy, noting, from a guy’s perspective, “I love receiving gift cards.”

Meg said it was something to consider as he led her to the headlamps section….

The approach: Handling the merchandise

“He probably doesn’t have one of the newer LED headlamps, which are a lot smaller and the batteries last a lot longer,” he said.

Black Shirt started going over the selection, which was merchandised with all the headlamps on display on metal fixtures, so customers could handle them, check out their weight and play with the features.

He pointed out a few different models, among them Black Diamond Equipment’s Spot, which he noted was a best seller for the store and cost $40.

“This one has two different major modes: proximity and the spot, which is how it gets its name. It’s a much narrower beam that shoots further away.”

He handed her a model to check out and showed her the various modes on the light, explaining how they offered varying brightness levels and flashing options. He added that LEDs don’t throw light very far, so what they’re best for — and what people seem to use them for the majority of the time — is around camp for set-up, cooking, reading, etc.

He also pointed out Black Diamond’s Cosmo, saying it was half as bright as the Spot, but smaller and $10 less, and then noted the feature differences of the company’s Gizmo model, as well as the Petzl equivalents.

Meg thought for sure she had exhausted his idea arsenal and was starting to thank him, when they walked by the sleeping pad display and he slid another idea her way….

The approach: Product comparisons

“Even though these Big Agnes sleeping pads have been around for a long time, they’ve really been catching on in the last couple years,” he told her.

They were starting to become more popular than self-inflating pads, thanks to their lighter weight and smaller size, he explained. He compared a Big Agnes model to a Therm-a-Rest model, noting differences in insulation thickness, similarities in size when inflated, and differences in size when packed down.

“Therm-a-Rest has owned the market for a while now. You pay a premium weight penalty for it to be self-inflating, but you’re lungs don’t weigh anything and you carry them around with you anyway,” as a way of explaining that the Big Agnes model wasn’t self-inflating. “But with people wanting to go lighter and lighter, that’s an easy way to go lighter while getting something that is also comfortable.”

With numerous options under her belt, Meg said she was going to look around and thanked Black Shirt for all his suggestions and advice.

His response, with a smile: “No problem …. It’s all toys.”

SNEWS® View: Our Mystery Shopper walked away from The Mountain Shop secure in the knowledge that outdoor shoppers in Portland have a great resource for outdoor gear. Below is a list of sales technique takeaways that other sales staff can learn from:

This staffer went the distance in making sure every point was covered, while also allowing us to have fun, interact and experience the choices. Plus, heck, we really liked his attitude, too.

–SNEWS® Editors