Dick's certified fitness trainers: Pulling their weight?

In April, SNEWS reported that Dick’s Sporting Goods implemented a personal trainer certification program, designed to out-muscle other competitors by placing a "certified trainer" in every store. We wondered just how knowledgeable and helpful these trainers would be to shoppers. There was only one way to find out. We did a stealth visit to a Dick’s store in the deep South to see first-hand a certified trainer in action. Our report...
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In April, SNEWS reported that Dick's Sporting Goods implemented a personal trainer certification program, designed to out-muscle other competitors by placing a "certified trainer" in every store. Certainly, we applaud any effort to train employees. In this case, to become "certified," a store employee takes a short two-day course from the International Fitness Professionals Association (www.ifpa-fitness.com), which led us to wonder just how knowledgeable and helpful these trainers would be to shoppers. There was only one way to find out. This July SNEWS did a stealth visit to a Dick's store (NYSE: DKS) in the deep South to see first-hand a certified trainer in action. Here's our report:

We glanced at our watch. 12 noon. We walked through the doors of Dick's Sporting Goods and proceeded directly to the fitness department. There we stood before a row of Bowflex machines for no more than a minute before a salesman walked up and asked in a friendly voice how he could help us. Dressed the part of a guy who works out and looking pretty fit too, he wore a light synthetic yellow short-sleeve shirt and blue training pants. Pinned on the shirt was a gold name tag, and beneath his name (we'll call him John) were the words we sought: Certified Personal Trainer.

Weeks before, other store employees had told us that this particular Dick's had a certified trainer (the corporate office had declined to divulge which stores had them). We shook John's hand and said, "They say you're the man to talk to about fitness stuff." He said he was, and we then explained that we were interested in setting up some equipment at home. Our story was that we had worked out on-and-off for years, and recently had been borrowing a friend's Bowflex. He perked right up, and quickly pointed us toward the Schwinn Comp, a type of Bowflex by Nautilus, and said, "I really like this machine here, and I can get it for you at a good price." It showed an original price of $799, but was marked down to $569. (Although a Schwinn Comp, the store had actually tacked a sign above it that said "Bowflex!")

We stood by and watched as John went into detail about the amount of weight resistance it offered and how we could move between different exercises quickly. "I also like that this has a comfortable seat," he said, as he sat on the bench and demonstrated how well it slid while doing leg presses. He seemed well-acquainted with the product's details. Problem was, so far this was like any other sales pitch. We were still waiting to see his "certified trainer" education stand up and shout. He then asked how much room we had in the house for equipment and what kind of price range we had in mind.

We said we had half a garage, and that we weren't set on a particular price. "Just trying to see what the possibilities are," we said. He responded, "Well, there's another machine here that could work well, though it's bigger." We walked over to a nearby Ultimate Smith machine by Dick's house brand, Fitness Gear, which was marked down from $1,499 to $899. "This is a good machine and a good price," he said, adding that spending another $120 on weights would be needed. He must have noticed some lip-biting and squirming and perhaps sensed that this machine was maybe too large because he only spoke about the machine's capabilities without actually doing any demonstration He did say the machine was better geared for those who want to "bulk up," which we said wasn't in our game plan.

We walked back over to the Bowflex aka Schwinn Comp and continued to try to tap a little more of his personal fitness knowledge. "What kind of workouts do you do?" we asked.

John said he does a lot of outdoor stuff, primarily climbing, and noted he mostly does chest presses and crunches. Then, he admitted, "I haven't had time to work my legs as much as I should." He asked if we also do much stuff outdoors, and we said yes. Then he asked, "What are your goals? Do you want to generally get into shape?" OK, now maybe, just maybe, we were getting somewhere. We nodded affirmatively and waited for John to start peppering us with more "trainer-type" questions since the showering with info that would put the "personal" in personal trainer had to be next. But, sigh, that didn't happen. He offered no real follow-up, which was a surprise since the door was wide open.Â

Struggling to discern his level of fitness knowledge, we asked if there were any other equipment, like dumbbells, that we should consider. "The Bowflex will probably be enough," he said, explaining that it offered a wide range of exercises. To his credit, we definitely got the idea that he was interested in making the sale, without pushing toward unneeded or more expensive equipment. In fact, the entire time he was fully engaged and his basic sales technique was solid, save for one thing—to this point, he had not encouraged me to actually get on either machine to try it out. More importantly, though, I still had little sense of what he, as a "certified" personal trainer, could bring to my shopping experience. "So, as a certified trainer, do you help set up particular workouts?" we asked, again opening the door wide enough for the Smith machine to walk in by itself.

"I don't have any experience doing on-on-one training with anyone in a gym," he said. Hm, our research for our spring story indicated the staff "trainers" would be able and willing to do training. There was some mention that the Comp machine comes with a good instructional workout book.

"Oh, I thought maybe you guys had, like, exercise programs that you recommend," we replied. John then said, "If you'd like some help, I'd be happy to do some research for you and come up with some ideas."

We sensed that assisting with a workout program was not normal procedure for a Dick's certified trainer; rather, John seemed to be offering out of the goodness of his heart. We thanked him for the offer, and he spent a few more minutes explaining the benefits and limitations of various Comp machines at other price points.

Our visit in the fitness department had lasted 14 minutes. We shook John's hand and thanked him for his help. He invited a call or another visit for more information, explained his work schedule, and our stealth visit was over. We were out the door.

SNEWS® View: If this were a normal stealth shopping experience gauging product knowledge and sales technique, we would have graded "John" a B. The only real criticism would be that he did not go far enough in encouraging us to actually test out the machines in the store – pretty key stuff since the tactile and body-fit experience is so important. However, since this visit was focused on the "certified trainer" program, we cannot give Dick's or "John" a passing grade. Here's the main beef: When consumers see a nametag that reads "certified personal trainer," we think they expect the person wearing that badge to provide an extra level of service and information to aid in shopping for equipment combined with fitness training. By the way, the IFPA requires graduates pass a 100-question multiple-choice test and a 30-question written exam. If we were to go by this one visit, it seems Dick's has not provided its trainers any added materials, programs, procedures, or guidelines to take the shopping experience to that next level we think is expected. We left the store without any idea as to what John learned during his two-day certification, nor an idea as to how the program really differentiates Dick's from its competitors, beyond another title and a likely raise for the salesperson for doing it. It appears that Dick's has a program that was good in its conception, but so far – based on this one visit – poor in its execution. For the program to carry any weight, it must provide some mechanism for employees to put useful knowledge into action on the sales floor. And employees must learn enough to feel confident in doing that. Applause for the attempt by Dick's to add credibility; now, let's make actions are as strong as the words.

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