Mystery Shopper: Crammed and cluttered, store still comes through

Mystery shopper operative Bulldog heads to Portland, Ore., to test the staff of Oregon Mountain Community on their sleeping bag know-how.
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SNEWS® heads to Portland, Ore., for yet another in our popular Mystery Shopping series. We love to have good experiences, really good ones, and this one was not bad -- not great, but not bad. Still, 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 wrong and what went right 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.

Within hours of our operative, code name Bulldog, landing at Portland's international airport, he was parking his rental car in the lot adjacent to Oregon Mountain Community. Located along busy NE Sandy Boulevard next to John W. Nejus & Co., a casters and wheel supply store, Oregon Mountain Community is likely not too concerned with drive-by traffic. In fact, our operative drove right by it, before realizing he had just missed the store, forcing him into a series of creative turns and maneuvers to get back to his intended destination.

Bulldog entered the store at 3:51 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 13. The first floor of the store was brightly lit, and full of packed racks and displays with books, maps, bottles, electronic gear and more. A virtual outdoor gear lover's playground. Two folks, whom Bulldog took to be customers since they were wandering around the store and meandered past him twice in the five minutes he remained on the lower floor, turned out to be employees. At least, he assumed they were employees because they remained engaged in conversation about something the entire time they navigated around Bulldog before locating themselves behind the cash register.

Since Bulldog did not see sleeping bags on the first floor, and he noticed a staircase clearly leading up to another level, he assumed, correctly it turns out, that sleeping bags were located on the second floor.

It was now 3:57 p.m. when Bulldog arrived on the second level, and he gazed to the left into a boot area where an employee was seated and helping a customer try on footwear. The employee looked up and at least nodded in Bulldog's direction. Turning right, and navigating racks packed with more clothing than any rack should legally be allowed to hold, Bulldog stumbled upon the sleeping bag area -- tucked into a corner of the store, out of sight, and apparently, most often, out of mind of the staff.

Bulldog hung out in the sleeping bag area, periodically venturing out into the store to attempt to be noticed for another six minutes. During that time, he noticed the floor cluttered to the right and left of the sleeping bag area with crumpled stuff sacks and what appeared to be a chair kit missing a part or two, as well as various sizes of rolled-up sleeping pads that had, at some point in their life, managed to escape the rack alongside the wall next to the sleeping bags and never found their way back home.

He wandered up and down the rack of hanging sleeping bags (a short trip as it was no more than 15 feet long) gazing at bags from Marmot, Western Mountaineering, MontBell, Mountain Hardwear and Kelty. Some were down, some were synthetic, and some were on sale. He kept looking at hang tags and fondling the bags, trying hard to keep looking interested.

All the while Bulldog heard and saw employees talking with either customers or themselves, and listened in as "Richard" (since that's the name we heard him called) talked with another employee not two racks from where Bulldog kept sending up signal flares for help. Based on eavesdropping, Richard was the owner.

Finally, at 4:05 p.m., Richard ventured quickly into the sleeping bag area and said, "You look like you are doing OK."

"Actually," Bulldog countered, "I am looking to buy a sleeping bag for my wife, her first, and really need a bit of advice."

Richard smiled, nodded, and then whisked off in the opposite direction while calling back, "Let me get Carl or John to help you since they know a lot about sleeping bags."

Within a minute, a smiling employee in a brown T-shirt with a guitar logo arrived, and introduced himself as Chris. Guess Carl and John weren't available.

Bulldog explained that he and his wife had been backpacking and camping all over the northwest for sometime now, but when they went, she always borrowed one of his bags and he thought it would be nice to get her one of her own, but it had been so long since he'd been sleeping bag shopping, he wasn't sure what to look for.

Chris nodded, and asked what bags Bulldog currently owned.

Perfect start…. Find out what brands and type of bags the shopper was familiar with. "A Western Mountaineering something or other -- a 15-degree bag, I think -- and then a Moonstone I have had forever and it is a favorite…. Good to about 20 degrees."

"Both down?" Chris asked.

"Yep, I like down because it is compact and warm."

"Me too," said Chris, angling over toward the Western Mountaineering Apache hanging on the rack.

He told Bulldog that this one was a customer favorite, as well as a favorite of his, and was likely the bag or very similar to the one he owned. Then, he asked how comfortably Bulldog's wife slept in cold temps with the current bag. Again, great question, Bulldog noted to himself, then answered that his wife was a very cold sleeper, who shivered in the 15-degree bag even when it was 25 degrees.

Bulldog asked about temperature ratings and why some bags were specifically marked for women, while fingering the tag on a Marmot Angel Fire, which was on sale.

Chris noted that women's bags had a cut and profile that was better fitted to their bodies, meaning fewer cold spots and spaces. More insulation was packed into various parts of the bags as well to ensure feet, typically a cold spot for women, and the core stayed warmer.

As for temperature ratings, Chris told Bulldog that Western Mountaineering was hands down the best as the company adhered to the European standard for rating bags which was the strictest, which he summarized for Bulldog. "If a Western Mountaineering bag is rated to 15 degrees, you can be sure even that is a conservative estimate. Most of the other manufacturers don't even adhere to the American standard when it comes to putting a temperature rating on the bag."

"What about this Marmot?"

"Well, that's a good bag for sure and the price on sale right now is great," said Chris, "But it isn't anywhere near as good in terms of insulation quality and construction as the Western bag."

Chris asked how tall Bulldog's wife was, and then recommended he buy her the longer bag so she would have room in it to store clothing in the foot of the bag, and space to be able to snuggle down into the bag when it got cold. He also explained that a good bag is not as good if a good sleeping pad is not used, and pointed to the rack next to the sleeping bags.

Bulldog, noting the time, told Chris he'd be back after mulling over things, but was leaning toward the Apache.

"That's a good call…your wife will love you for it."

SNEWS® View: Although it took a while for Bulldog to get noticed, once he was discovered and identified as a potential customer, Chris showed why folks do drive out of their way to head to Oregon Mountain Community. He mixed in personal experience with the gear with every answer, and showed a clear knowledge that went well beyond clinic-offered information. Chris is a user, and that made Bulldog feel right at home. He also asked great questions to qualify the purchase and immediately zoned in on a bag that, frankly, Bulldog would have picked himself had he been the one doing the selling. Chris' only stumble was around temperature ratings and standards. While giving a nod to the European standard (read our "How To Sell" Training Center article on the science of warmth for more on this topic by clicking here), it is important to note that there is still not any American standard. We would have liked to hear Chris talk a bit more about variables affecting warmth because, even with a standard, we know not everyone would be warm in the Apache even at 25 degrees, despite its conservative 15-degree rating.

As for the store -- clean it up gang!!!!! If SNEWS® had been a first-time customer, it's likely we would have taken one look, whirled around and left, never to come back. We certainly wouldn't have worked so hard to find the sleeping bags! We know it was Christmas shopping season, but keeping a store at least moderately picked up and organized really shouldn't be that tough and it isn't really all that challenging. Plus, it makes a world of difference when it comes to impressing customers. We doubt Chris spent any time straightening up the area after Bulldog left, but he should have!

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