Mystery Shopper: Customer's needs center-stage in super sales experience

SNEWS® was in the Northwest recently and decided it was high time to do a little mystery shopping again. Dusty stepped into Fitness Shop on the hunt for something to help the balance, coordination and strength he knew he'd need for his coming winter skiing adventures. Figured the fitness store would be a good place to explore his options.

SNEWS® was in the Northwest recently and decided it was high time to do a little mystery shopping again. 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.

We saw the Burgerville USA joint before we saw the sign for Fitness Shop in Beaverton, Ore. The burger joint was packed. Hope that didn’t mean the neighborhood leaned more toward fat than fitness. Undaunted, Dusty stepped into Fitness Shop on the hunt for something to help the balance, coordination and strength he knew he’d need for his coming winter skiing adventures. Figured the fitness store would be a good place to explore his options.

Our shopper sauntered in and found a relatively drab and dingy feel, more like a warehouse than a place to shop. “I’m not feeling too optimistic,” he thought as he glanced around and saw nobody else but one lone salesman on the phone in the office behind a glass window. But the guy didn’t waste a second, hanging up and getting over to Dusty before he could even size up the gear on his own.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “How can I help you?”

“I’m a telemark skier and had an injury that kept me from skiing last year,” Dusty explained. “I’ve also noticed I’m having issues with my balance. I’m able to work on strength by running UP stuff, but I can’t run DOWN stuff, which was the way I worked on balance before.”

The sales guy, whose name we didn’t find out til later, immediately started trying to find out more about any possible injury, what we wanted, why, what our shopper had tried in the past, and what might be best for him this time. That was a great start!

“Did you hurt your knee?” he asked. No, our shopper said, it was a shoulder thing that led to a back thing. He liked the fact the sales guy was looking for a root cause before prescribing or selling.

It didn’t take long for the sales guy’s mind, which our shopper could practically hear running down lists, to come up with what he thought would be best. Dusty could nearly see the light bulb go on over his head. The sales guy lead Dusty to the back wall in the small shop, which is what one would have to loosely call “the accessory section,” although Dusty couldn’t spy any particular organization and certainly wasn’t attracted by any merchandising efforts. It seemed to be lost and neglected behind all the big cardio and strength equipment. Based on its less-than-tidy appearance and lack of merchandising, the accessory section seemed like an afterthought even. But Dusty had a guide and he wanted to show Dusty something he called a BOSU Ball, which to Dusty looked like one of those inflatable balls somebody had sliced in half. He then hopped on and explained how even just standing on it would help our shopper’s …. The sales guy started using a word for something that made Dusty’s head hurt.

“My WHAT?” Dusty thought. He never did figure out what the sales guy was trying to say. It must have been some kind of muscle or something to do with stabilizing. Sure, he understood intuitively but never did get the word…. Dusty wasn’t shy, though, to admit his lack of technical knowledge when it came to kinesiology:

“You probably should talk to me like you’d talk to a second grader.”

He went on to use the word again, which was thankfully the only time he disintegrated into any kind of lingo that lost our shopper. Those (that strange muscle name again) “are these muscles that help hold you in place to maintain your balance,” he said, enthusiastically and passionately showing Dusty where that muscle was, pointing mostly to the hips, and how it would help him.

Our shopper was in awe that he was doing all this while still standing on that half-ball. But he was very good at explaining what the ball does and demonstrating it. He answered questions succinctly and asked questions to ferret out in more detail if it seemed this would help. Dusty was pretty impressed with the intensity of his enthusiasm and inquiries. Nearly no stone was left unturned in the barely 16-minute sales process.

When our shopper got on the ball, he commented it seemed kind of easy and the sales guy, rather deviously said, “Oh, I can make it harder,” with a twinkle in his eye. “How?” our agent asked. He proceeded to demonstrate standing on the ball with one foot, showing a pushup off the ball (one-armed, no less, which really impressed Dusty).

The sales guy pointed out value-adds like the video that came with it to help educate Dusty in how to use it. “Can my kids use it?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s great for them. And you can use it for a lot more than balance. It comes with a workout guide and video,” he explained.

Dusty certainly was convinced about this BOSU Ball thing, but wanted to be sure there weren’t other types of gear he should consider.

“What about the wobble board?” our shopper asked.

“Oh,” said the sales guy, “you don’t want that. It’s more for rehabilitation and older folks.”

With this kind of enthusiasm, questioning and demonstration, Dusty was sold. “This seems great, but I need to ask my wife, just to be sure. I’ll be back.”

Our shopper asked for the sales guy’s card, and then left, wishing he could lay down the cash right there and then, the experience was so good.

The burger joint, by the way, was still hopping.

SNEWS® View: Despite the dingy warehouse feel and lack of motivating merchandising, not atypical unfortunately in fitness specialty stores, the experience was exceptional (except that we never got the sales guy’s name til we asked for his card at the end). We also wished he’d shown a couple of options without us asking just to build confidence we were making the right choice. Now, if only they’d gussy up the store a bit so the equipment wasn’t arranged like a parking lot and perhaps put a little effort into accessory organization to make that area more attractive too. Seems that could do nothing but increase accessory sales and aren’t sales what a store is about? Just a little merchandising, color … just a little life here and there to add to the enthusiasm and life exhibited by our sales guy. “Dusty” thought the guy truly listened and responded. He was so impressed with the guy that he’d send his friends there to ask for him. Now that’s one reference.