Mystery Shopper: A shopper nearly ignored on her search for winter running apparel - SNEWS

Mystery Shopper: A shopper nearly ignored on her search for winter running apparel

SNEWS® was checking out New York for a few days in the late fall and decided it was time to take another look at Paragon Sports -- a bit of a sports and outdoor landmark in Manhattan and one that we'd put to the test in our latest Mystery Shopper mission.
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SNEWS® was checking out New York for a few days in the late fall and decided it was time to take another look at Paragon Sports -- a bit of a sports and outdoor landmark in Manhattan and one that we hoped would hit it out of the park in our latest shopping test. As we always like to point out: Our goal with these 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, 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 (www.snewsnet.com/trainingcenter) to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.

Jane had spent a few days in New York in early fall interviewing for a new job and house-hunting, knowing she'd be moving to New York soon. As the trip neared its close, she realized she had something else to investigate: A dedicated runner, she needed to figure out how to dress for long runs on what would be much more brutally cold winter days than the long-time Southern Californian was used to or knew how to endure.

She'd already heard of Paragon Sports through her running circles and future business colleagues in the city. Although it had been a spectacular, warm fall week, off she went the evening before her departure. It so happened to be a Monday evening but since the store was open until 8 p.m., she figured she'd still have time to get in some shopping in the store's last hour.

Jane was swept in the door with a throng of other shoppers at 7:18 p.m. The store seemed to be echoing with voices and the sound of cash registers -- must be the rush to get things done and get home, she thought. Either that or it was just typical hurry-hurry, loud New York City. She paused to look at a very clearly written directional sign that pointed to the running department in the lower level. As she went down the stairs, she glanced to her right and saw some cute things that looked more like fitness or gym clothes. With a goal, though, and the clock running, she kept going down the stairs.

The basement level was packed with shelves and rounds -- so much so that it was not only difficult to see what was where but even more difficult to get around. She had to squeeze between racks and step around end-caps to move along. It wasn't totally clear to her where the women's section ended and the men's began. Footwear, at least, was clear -- lining the back and side wall with a low half-wall separating it from apparel and accessories. Five sales guys were hanging around the footwear wall in the back chatting among themselves, she noticed, and the store M.O. seemed to be just to require them all to wear black and then accessorize with a Paragon name tag.

A couple of men in button-down shirts, however, were busily working at the registers there, which were marked as closed. With about 40 minutes til the store closed, the staff seemed to be already shutting down the day. Four other sales staff members were milling around the front of the register area -- a couple were chatting about life and times as they went in and out of the dressing rooms, seemingly cleaning them up after the day. Another was showing off some dance moves to a song on the radio and laughing with the others. They all seemed oblivious to any customers -- even one like Jane who was moving slowly past them and working her way around the racks, fingering clothes and pulling things out to look at. Another man in a Polo shirt (name tag noted) called out to one staffer to ask if he had taken care of some request (he hadn't). It had all the appearances of a 3rd grade classroom 10 minutes before the school-is-out bell was going to ring -- kids basically done for the day and ignoring any to-dos.

Jane continued to wander, searching through sizes, pulling things out and holding them up to look, pulling open necklines to look at tags, reading hangtags -- basically doing all those things a pretty serious shopper would do. She moved methodically, stopping at racks where clothes for colder days seemed to be, but was having trouble finding what seemed to be stuff that would really keep her warm. The guys in the back continued to yak it up, although once glanced her way, and the staff in the front ignored her.

By 7:43 -- 24 minutes after entering the store, not one single person had acknowledged her existence -- not a hello at the door, not a smile in passing, not even a nod. Zippo. Except the sales guy bustin' a move who said, "Excuse me," when she tried to move past him. Frustrated by the lack of help and feeling a bit shy in the bustling store, she went back upstairs to take a peek at the stuff she had seen before. She was there less than a minute before a very professional, older (in comparison to the downstairs staff), snappily dressed sales woman looked over at her (although she was in the middle of helping another) and asked if Jane needed help. The sales woman oozed confidence, had a knowledgeable air and was very cliché New York-business-like.

"Yeah, I'm looking for stuff to run in when it gets cold," Jane said. The woman looked at her like she was nuts and said it wasn't cold yet.

"I know it's not cold now, but it will be. I'm moving from Southern California and I think it's going to be really cold," Jane added, explaining she wanted to keep running.

The woman told her all she needed was long tights and pointed her toward a wall behind her. "See those on that wall over there? Those'll work."

"Oh," Jane said, not entirely convinced that just adding long tights was going to keep her warm. So she inquired about what to wear on top.

A long-sleeve top, the sales lady said, while her other customer looked on, seemingly amused. The sales lady waved her toward another area with some turtlenecks and half-zips (still not moving an inch), adding a light jacket on top of that would do it.

"That's all?" Jane asked, incredulously. "I get really cold."

Yes, the sales lady said. Jane wasn't satisfied yet and pushed about whether there was more winter stock coming in. "No, not really. Go try downstairs in the running department." That impressed Jane as a ploy to get rid of her.

"Well, I was just there and I only saw lightweight stuff, but I'll go try again. Thanks," Jane said, now feeling as if she should perhaps give up and just go to a store near her at home where she knew the people. But, determined to follow her assignment, she headed out and decided to take a quick look on the second floor in the outdoor department on her way. The whole exchange with Professional Sales Lady took three minutes. In outdoors, she saw all kinds of fleecy gloves and snuggly-looking tops and tights. She only spent three minutes there too and she figured nobody saw her since the racks and shelves were so tall she was hidden. But she knew possibilities existed in the walls of Paragon.

Since running was what she was after, she headed back down to the basement at about 7:49. This time she'd push it a bit. The young folks and shoe guys where still milling and yakking so she did one more slow circle, hoping they'd notice. No such luck. It seemed like a private party she hadn't been invited to. But with 11 minutes til closing it was time for action. She approached the register where a thin young girl was talking to a young man -- both with their backs to the floor (and therefore her). She stood behind them and waited a few seconds. The girl was too busy talking to the guy (and endlessly flipping her waist-length hair around). They must have felt her presence, since they both turned around and seemed a bit surprised to see her.

"Do you have a question?" the girl asked. Maybe this was a New York thing. You were supposed to just take care of yourself.

"Yes, I'm looking for stuff to run in when it's cold. I'm moving from Southern California for a job, and I think it's going to be colder than I'm used to."

The girl agreed that it was going to get pretty cold, adding that they all "get depressed. Everybody is just depressed all winter," she added.

The guys called the winter "brutal" and told her she'd hate it.

Oh, great, Jane moaned aloud. But said she hoped to run and did the store have stuff for cold weather.

The girl, still fooling with her long hair -- flip, twist, flip, twist -- said, yeah, those tights in the back, let me show you. She ushered her to the far back to a display of CW-X apparel and pulled out some thick tights that were fleecy inside and told her they were really warm. These will keep you warm, she explained, and added Jane could also wear them skiing or doing other things.

"OK, that sounds pretty good. What else would I need?"

The girl then showed her a long-sleeve, loose CW-X top, told her she'd then wear a lighter shirt underneath it and add just a light jacket.

"That's all? Just a light jacket?" Jane asked. "You just said it would be brutal.

The girl said that was all she'd need. To gain confidence in her recommendation, Jane asked the sales girl if she ran.

No, she said, but proudly pointed out she'd worked in the department for almost three years and had seen what all the runners buy. She added that Jane would also want a hat and took her back to the front and showed her a wall with beanies. At that point, back near the register, she seemed to be trying to edge away. Jane glanced at her watch and saw it was 7:55: "Oh, I see you're about ready to close," Jane said, but followed up with a quick inquiry about gloves. The girls waved her in the direction of another wall with gloves hanging on it. By now they were back standing in front of register counter, and the guy was still there. He reiterated how freezing it gets, noting he has lived in the city since he was little. He and the girl agreed again how "horrible" it is, and he recommended she just either stop running or go to a gym. "But I'm a runner!" Jane exclaimed. "I don't want to do that."

It was now 7:57 and she headed upstairs and happened to find a tiny accessory she'd been wanting. She was literally shoveled into a line at the checkout counter and rung up -- no smiles, no "did you find what you wanted," no "thanks for shopping at Paragon." OK, maybe she's not "New York" enough but it seemed kind of cold and brusque to her.

A minute later she was back out on the New York street where the cacophony of voices, horns and hawkers wasn't any better. She felt exhausted from her effort and decided to check out a small running shop she'd seen on the upper West side -- one, in fact, she had run past not too far from Central Park.

Now about dinner….

SNEWS® View: We've been in Paragon before. During past visits, albeit earlier in the day, we most often found helpful, knowledgeable staff -- and most certainly a wealth of product stuffed into a downtown urban store. Granted, this was an end-of-day challenge, but we honestly went in expecting Paragon to shine. But we walked out this time shaking our head. How can a store supposedly this good look this bad? How can a shopper be so nearly totally ignored? And when she IS helped be treated like she's in the way and slowing down the closing process? The only greeting at the front door was a burly security guard checking us out. OK, this IS New York, but, please, even there people are people and like to be treated decently. The signs telling shoppers where to find things were verry clear and, without them, we're not sure we would have lasted as long as we did in our search. The Professional Sales Lady in activewear did the right things, greeting and acknowledging, and did try to help her but that department really didn't carry what Jane needed. At least she tried to send our shopper back to where she thought she'd get help.

The running department staff, however, was self-involved, and our shopper got the impression that they had already mentally punched out their time cards before she got there and she was only a nuisance. Granted, we aren't New Yorkers, and maybe a New Yorker would just bust into dance moves and chattering clerk clusters and demand attention, but should we really have to elbow in and demand attention? For a specialty retailer, any specialty retailer, what makes a store special is its customer service -- never more so important than now in this challenged economy. This was about as poor of a selling job as we have ever seen, from a specialty store that should know much, much better. Granted, even Super Bowl teams lose a game every now and then, and championship runners stumble, and even world-class climbers experience a fall now and again. But those who stay on top of their game learn from their mistakes. We hope Paragon learns from this…and every other specialty retailer reading this learns from Paragon's stumble. This won't be the last time SNEWS conducts an end-of-day service exam. Next time, we hope we'll see more than just a passing grade.

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