Mystery Shopper: Brasington's fires it up with stove sale

It’s hard to believe that the WhisperLite stove was introduced more than 20 years ago. And it still occupies shelf space next to newcomers like the ultra-efficient Jetboil. Which got us thinking…how well are retailers selling the old warhorses versus the fresh models with newer technologies? We called our undercover shopper Grits to see if he'd take on a Mystery Shopper stove assignment. "Sure," said Grits, "but let's make it Florida this time. I'm starting to lose my tan."
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It's hard to believe that the WhisperLite stove was introduced more than 20 years ago. And it still occupies shelf space next to newcomers like the ultra-efficient Jetboil. Which got us thinking…how well are retailers selling the old warhorses versus the fresh models with newer technologies? We called our undercover shopper Grits to see if he'd take on a Mystery Shopper stove assignment. "Sure," said Grits, "but let's make it Florida this time. I'm starting to lose my tan."

On a blue-sky Thursday afternoon, Grits found himself in Gator Country—Gainesville, Florida, that is, home of the University of Florida. Brasington's Adventure Outfitters—a long-time fixture in this college town—sat in an unremarkable shopping center. But a colorful mural of trail runners and sea kayakers stretched across the storefront, which made the shop a real bright spot amid the sameness.  

Inside, the store appeared cozy. Grits glanced up at the wood skeleton frame of a boat, and saw that warm light fell over well-organized fixtures throughout the store. Stacks of touring boats occupied the right side, while apparel racks were neatly spaced on the left. A sort of raised porch stood in the center of the store—an interesting architectural detail that gave the place even more character.

Soon after Grits walked in, an employee approached, strolling like a young man at ease. "Is there anything in particular I can help you with?" the employee asked. He wore no tag, and Grits didn't get his name, but we'll call him John.

"Yeah, I'm looking for a stove," said Grits.

"OK, I can show you some things,” John replied.  

He led our mystery shopper over the raised platform to the back of the store, where a large recessed space held stoves on the right wall and cookware on the left wall. More than a half dozen liquid-fuel and canister stoves from MRS, Primus and Jetboil sat on a shelf, lined up in a neat row. Not a bad idea, thought Grits. The lineup makes it easy to see the differences between the products.

"Do you know what kind of stove you're looking for?" the salesperson asked.

"Well I had a WhisperLite for years, but it finally conked out on me," Grits replied.

"So do you think you're looking for something else?” John asked in a very easy, patient way.

"I'm not sure if I want the same thing or something different," Grits said. "I haven't really looked at stoves in a long time."

The salesperson pointed to a WhisperLite Internationale sitting to the far left in the row of stoves. "We have the WhisperLite here. But, you could also consider one of these," he said, pointing to the MSR Pocket Rocket and SuperFly. "These canister stoves are a bit easier to use. You don't have to prime them, and it's easier to simmer with one of these than a WhisperLite." Nice job, thought Grits. Customers are always glad to hear how a product will make life easier for them.

He then struggled a bit to unscrew the canister form the SuperFly—something got stuck— but he made good humor of the situation, so it didn't feel awkward. After finally removing the canister, he thoroughly described how to use it, step by step.

So far the sales was going pretty well. The salesman had made a nice recovery from a brief awkward moment. And his only miscue so far was failing to ask about the type of activities and in what type of cooking he liked to do. This information could quickly help narrow down the choices. He seemed to be steering Grits to a newer stove, rather than the WhisperLite, so Grits decided to push back a bit to see what would happen.

"One of the things I liked about the WhisperLite was that I could break it down and fix it if something went wrong," said Grits. "Can I do that with this kind?" he asked gesturing toward the SuperFly. "Do these get clogged?"

"No, you don't really run into that problem with these," said the salesperson. He explained that the fuel comes out of the canister as a vapor, so it's not as likely to clog as fuel in liquid form. Yes! The guy knows his stuff, thought Grits. And then it got better.

"The only downside to the canister stoves is they don't work as well in cold weather," said the salesperson. Ooh, another nice touch. This was an important point differentiating the products. Grits chimed in, "I do like to go winter camping out West." And the salesperson replied, "Well, you might want to stick with something like a WhisperLite with liquid fuel."

In the question of old technology versus new technology, this store seemed to strike a good balance selling each. And this employee was capable of explaining each effectively.

"An advantage to the WhisperLite is that it will run off different types of fuels," John pointed out. "And if you get the Internationale, you can burn kerosene and gasoline in it."

"I guess the downside to canisters is you just throw them away when you're done, so they're not as environmentally friendly,” he added.

Good point—some customers will certainly consider the environmental aspects.

When Grits asked about differences between the Pocket Rocket and SuperFly, the salesperson pointed out a couple of notable features. "They're both lightweight stoves, but the Pocket Rocket weighs a little less and folds down to a smaller size," he said. "But the SuperFly has larger supports for pots. That's something to think about if you're using larger cookware."

As the salesperson talked, our Mystery Shopper was eyeing a Jetboil stove to the far right. He figured this was a god opportunity to test the salesperson's savvy and replied, "I don't use too many big pots, because I'm mostly go solo and boil water for myself."

"Well, have you seen one of these?" said the salesperson, walking over to the Jetboil. "This is a really cool thing if you're just looking to boil water."

Bravo! An excellent job of listening and reacting. Grits could tell the salesperson really liked the Jetboil, as he enthusiastically went through every feature in detail, including a nice explanation of how the heat exchanger improves fuel efficiency.

"A guy who works here has been camping several times, and he's still using the same canister," John said. That's cool, thought Grits. Customers appreciate anecdotes from store employees.

Grits asked if there was a danger of getting while using the Jetboil, and the salesperson demonstrated how to safely remove the heat exchanger and place the plastic cover over the bottom of the cup. Now that was helpful information. The salesperson added, "Soon there will be a new version coming out that will have an attachment that lets you put a pan on it." Hey, that was honest. At the risk of losing an immediate sale, the guy still chose to pass along this bit of info.

The salesperson said a couple of times that he wished he could demonstrate the Jetboil, but there were no canisters available for demonstration. "Man, I wish I could light one up," he said. Yeah, that would've been icing on the cake, thought Grits. It's something the store should consider for the future.

As the salesperson started to show Grits how all the pieces of the stove nested together, our undercover man already felt more than satisfied and prepared to exit. "You know, I think I'll wait until that new model comes in and get it then," he said.

"That sounds good," the salesperson replied, and Grits made his way to the door, confident that the outdoor crowd in Gator Country wouldn't go hungry.

SNEWS® Training Tips: This guy was solid and did a fine job, demonstrating solid sales skills and clearly showing the store took training very seriously. Our Mystery Shopper had only a few suggestions to tighten up the sale:

1. The employee never offered his name. If store employees aren't going to wear nametags, they should be sure to introduce themselves. Customers just feel more comfortable when they know the same of the person they're dealing with.

2. The employee could have made his life easier by asking questions to qualify the customer. What kind of weather will you camp in? What type of cooking do you do? The more questions you ask, the more likely you'll quickly outfit the customer with the appropriate gear.

3. Finally, if a customer lets you know he or she is going to wait for a newer version of something, that's your cue to let them know when that newer version will likely be in stock and in your store.

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