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Retail Learning

Mystery Shopper: Retailer stumbles with tough shopping challenge

SNEWS® was in Toronto, Ontario, during the holiday season and decided to see how our Canadian neighbors would handle a mystery shopper sales scenario. We learn something every time we do one of these and hope you do too. Don't forget to visit our Training Center to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers, both fitness and outdoor, for additional perspective on the state of specialty retail.

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SNEWS® was in Toronto, Ontario, during the holiday season and decided to see how our Canadian neighbors would handle a mystery shopper sales scenario. We learn something every time we do one of these and hope you do too. We always like to point out: Our goal with these Mystery Shoppers is not to praise one particular store or person — or to pick on one person or one store — but to point out what went wrong and what went right and, we hope, to 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, both fitness and outdoor, for additional perspective on the state of specialty retail.

Our mystery shopper — we’ll call her Stella — took along a male friend as support and consult when she went shopping for a holiday gift for her husband on a cold night in Toronto, Ontario. The huge MEC right downtown seemed like the best place to get the best advice: The husband was the guy who had basically everything when it came to the outdoors, and dabbled at everything when it came to outdoor activities, but he did like new and cool toys and other gear. So she decided to see if the staff there could take on this rather tough assignment of only vaguely wanting something new and cool.

Stella and her friend wandered in to the downtown MEC on a Friday evening in December just before 6 p.m. Traffic was steady, but the store wasn’t too swamped. Surprisingly, she was not greeted and in fact immediately felt a little lost as shoppers and staff bustled about. She and her friend even felt a little out of place since several signs warned that you had to be a member to buy anything. Gee, made her almost feel as if she wasn’t part of the club, and since she didn’t really know where to start for the husband-with-everything, she almost turned around and ran back out the door. But a pegboard filled with all kinds of lights, headlamps and small gear hung nearby and it sucked her in for a look-see. Still, she wasn’t sure if these kinds of things would be right since she didn’t really know for sure what her husband had, and she wasn’t quite the gear geek he was.

After a few minutes, Stella and her friend raised the courage to venture farther, wandering in the typical counter-clockwise circle, stopping occasionally to finger skis, snowshoes, small accessories, kayaks and books. She knew she couldn’t begin to pick out something like a boat or skis for her guy, so maybe some kind of accessory or something electronic. She figured there had to be something really totally new that her husband likely didn’t have. About 15 minutes after entering — and still no one had yet even nodded in their direction — Stella and her friend landed at a counter with watches, GPS units, heart-rate monitors, sunglasses and other accessories and started to eyeball all the widgets and gadgets. Oh my! She definitely needed help.

The young man who Stella thought worked the area was at the other end of the 12-foot glass case helping another couple. But she still didn’t get an acknowledgement for a few minutes. Finally, another staff member wandered in — apparently just to say hi to his friend there — and paused to ask if Stella needed help.

“Yes, I need a present for my husband and I have no idea what to get,” said Stella hopefully. Added her friend, “He’s an outdoor guy who kind of has everything.”

The guy sort of looked at her, and then glanced at the guy who actually worked the counter. Stella added, “Maybe something just really new that he wouldn’t have yet. Can you help? Please?”

“I don’t work in this department, but I can try,” the guy said, glancing at the guy who really worked there, somewhat desperately. Well, at least we had to give him credit for this attempt to help since nobody else in the MEC store had even said howdy-do.

“What does he do? Hike? Climb? Ski?” he asked.

“A little bit of everything,” she said, but added that something more for backpacking, camping or hiking would probably do the trick.

The guy then called to the buddy at the counter who had just finished with the other customers. He explained our request and both of them looked at Stella and her friend kind of perplexed. So our tester said again, “Is there anything maybe just so really new and cool?”

They looked at each other blankly. Granted, this was a really open question and an awfully tough task, but not one that was likely that unusual with a wife shopping for her husband. And blank stares just don’t inspire shopping confidence. Come on people! Is this really the first time you’ve fielded a question similar to this around Christmas?

The young blond guy who worked the counter hesitated a bit longer and replied, “Uh, no, not really, no nothing.”

“Nothing new? Nothing at all?” Stella asked him incredulously, trying to give him a chance to think while he recovered and then trying to give him something to work with: “We were looking at the watches. I know my husband likes watches and those things with all that altitude stuff and all. I think it’s been awhile since he’s gotten one. Is there one that’s really new?”

The salesman looked at her somewhat blankly again, shifting on his feet. His friend — the one who didn’t work there — took that as his cue to slip out as he told Stella that if her husband was interested in climbing gear to come see him at the climbing counter. She thanked him and turned back to blond guy, who started to get his bearings.

“This one here,” he said, pulling out a Suunto Core wrist-top computer. “Wow, cool,” said Stella and her friend almost at the same time. She then pointed at an older model. “I think he has this other one still.”

“That’s nice,” said her friend, still eyeing the Suunto Core. “What’s it do?”

Blond sales guy told them about it, saying it did exactly what the other one did but that it just looked different, and pulled out all the different colors available. “They’re different only in color?” she asked.

“Color and price,” he answered. This was going nowhere really fast, so Stella and friend kept prodding.

“Different colors cost different?” she asked, a bit astounded. Sales guy pointed to them, noting ones for CAD $270 and then the prices up to CAD $550. “Why are they different?” Stella asked, still floored. He explained the different screen colors and how they work differently in different conditions, and pointed out a leather band on one.

“This one is how much?” Stella asked again, not sure she heard right.

“550??” her friend added. “They charge that much more for a leather band?”

“Yeah, this watch is ridiculous,” the sales guy said.

“Do people buy this?” they asked.

“Well, I see one box gone, so I guess so,” sales guy said

“Well, I like this other one. It’s a good possibility for a gift, but not that one for $550,” Stella said.

“Yeah, it’s ridiculous,” sales guy affirmed again.

“But I’d still like to see a couple of other possibilities,” said Stella, really hoping and wishing the sales guy would jump at the chance, any chance, she gave him to really start selling to someone who really wanted to buy a gift. “What else do you think?”

Of course, by this time, he’d spent about 20 minutes with them on watches and Stella was sure he was getting tired of this silly lady who had no idea what to buy for her husband, but we do give him points for bravely shuffling on.

The sales presentation turned to chitchat about how much he liked working there, the benefits he got even for part-time work as a student, the discounts, as well as the paid trips that were educational to help the staff learn about gear. The guy definitely liked the place, and that helped us also think highly of it.

Our mystery shopper continued to look at heart-rate monitors, but decided that wouldn’t be so good. She eyed the GPS units and saw one, a Garmin 60CX, that the sales guy pointed out as “new,” but she still wasn’t sure it was the right gift. He showed them some iPod accessories that her friend pointed to that were hanging behind the sales guy on the wall. “He does like to listen to music,” Stella said. “I could give a gift pack of stuff,” she thought aloud. “What about those?” she asked, pointing to what appeared to be a protector box for iPods. It turned out to be an H2O Audio case to waterproof iPods. “Wow, that’s big,” she said. Added the friend, “I don’t know, he’s not so much into watersports you know.”

“Have you used it?” they asked the guy. “Do you like it?”

“Well, it’s heavy, and there’s no hold button, so if you put it in your pocket or something, it can just keep playing.”

“Hmm, so you’d run the batteries down,” Stella added for him. “Do headphones come with it?”

“No,” he said, noting earphones were an additional $45 and pointing out that the company was kind of “tricky” because the plug is a different size so you have to use theirs if you want it to be waterproof.

Well, that avenue wasn’t happening either so Stella asked one last time: “OK, is there anything else at all that is really new and that you and your buddies all say, ‘Oh, I want that’?” He then took us past water filters, showing the Steripen Adventure as new, past Trangia cookware sets and other stuff. We finally reiterated that the Suunto watch might be the thing, but we were going to look around a bit more. By this time, he had spent a solid 35 minutes with our team.

Stella and her friend wandered down to the climbing area too, where they were shown a belay device, some bolts, a locking carabiner, but nothing really new, so our gang of two thanked the salesman there and moved on.

Finally, about 75 minutes after Stella and her friend had ventured in, they made their full rounds and figured it was time to leave to think about their choices.

SNEWS® View: Since study after study shows that being greeted when entering a store and/or when arriving at a counter makes a world of difference in the minds of consumers regarding how positive a shopping experience is, we were very surprised that did not seem to be a priority at a store with the reputation for quality and service that MEC enjoys. Perhaps we chalk that up to Christmas fatigue or new staff? We eyeballed the front door several times while we were there to see if we just happened in when somebody was on a bathroom break but never did see a greeter. We also felt pretty lost when we first wandered in. In a store that size, it really wouldn’t be a bad idea to have some kind of directory handy so customers can find their way to a particular department. We didn’t see one obvious.

The sales guys we talked to were both really nice, really honest and meant very well — but the one was just a tad too honest. How did he know we didn’t have money burning a hole in our pockets and were ready to jump at a watch for $550? Even if we were, calling it ridiculous meant we wouldn’t consider it, since then we’d look ridiculous to him. This seemed like a classic case of a really young salesperson who hasn’t been shown how to really sell a product that likely costs more then he makes in a couple of weeks. Honesty is good, but unless it truly doesn’t work for some reason, a salesperson’s personal tastes should not color a possible sale.

Despite a beautiful store, a superior selection and full staffing, we’d have to give this experience just a passing grade. Of course, we know this was a dang tough request to ask somebody for a gift idea without anything really specific in mind — even though we believed going in that if any store would do well with this scenario, it would be MEC. Given the challenges of the experience, we would never flunk the store, but at tops, it could be seen as a C+ or a B- experience. Which is just way too low for the likes of MEC.