Cold temperatures blew into the South early this winter, so we dispatched Mystery Shoppers Jack and Cindy to visit Cumberland Transit, an outdoor specialty store in Nashville, Tenn., to shop for a jacket. The plan was to shop specifically for Cindy and see how well the store served a female customer -- especially when accompanied by a man. 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.
On a Saturday afternoon, Cindy and Jack cruised past Cumberland Transit, which occupies an attractive brick building among a small string of shops near Vanderbilt University. Standing out brightly from the pale green exterior was a green and yellow Cumberland Transit sign that made the store easy to spot from the street. Actually, you couldn't miss this place, as the exterior was covered with colorful murals, including a hiker in dark profile set against an orange sunset. A window facing the sidewalk held a solo wooden canoe, while two women stood in another window display case, putting up Christmas decorations.
After parking in a small lot at the rear of the store, Cindy and Jack walked through a back door at 1 p.m. and noticed how cozy the shop was, with wood floors and warm lighting. Jack looked up and noticed a Wilderness Systems kayak and Old Town canoe suspended from the high ceiling rafters near the entrance. He and Cindy turned right to pass apparel from major players, such as Mountain Hardwear, The North Face, Patagonia and Arc'Teryx. With store traffic heavy this Saturday, the pair had to squeeze through the crowd, passing a children's section and approached a metal and stone cash-wrap counter. Turning left just before the counter, they noticed off to the side a small room packed tightly with shells and insulated jackets. Upon closer inspection, they discovered this was a women's section with products from The North Face, Outdoor Research, Mountain Hardwear, Marmot and Patagonia. Unfortunately, there was no signage to indicate that this room was for women.
In fact, the two realized that no salesperson had yet to acknowledge our Mystery Shoppers. Granted, it was a busy day, so they left the women's section and returned to a main apparel department where they would be more visible. At 1:07, Jack and Cindy were approached by a salesperson in his 20s who wore a black V-neck T-shirt, jeans and a shell necklace. He wore square-rimmed glasses and had a slight beard and a friendly smile.
"Can I help you find anything?" the salesperson asked. He did not introduce himself and was not wearing a nametag, though he came across as nice and confident.
"Yes, I'd like to get a jacket," said Cindy.
The salesperson quickly recommended that they return to the women's section, and once there, he asked Cindy what types of activities she would be doing while wearing the jacket. Good start, she thought -- a solid step toward qualifying the customer. "I'll pretty much use it for camping and wearing around every day," Cindy replied. Then, the salesperson asked how important warmth was. As a person who tends to be cold, Cindy very much appreciated that he asked the question, and told him that warmth was important.
She also appreciated that the salesperson was addressing her directly, rather than talking to her male companion Jack. Too often, salespeople will do just the opposite, and ignore the woman, even if the purchase is for her.
"You could take one of two routes," said the salesperson. "You could get an insulated shell, or use a down sweater and also a shell." He then walked to a nearby round rack and gestured toward an Inlux jacket from The North Face, showing Cindy an example of an insulated jacket. He then said that it would be good for a wide range of things, including skiing. (Cindy hadn't mentioned skiing, but the salesperson was no doubt just trying to explain that it was versatile). So far, so good. But then the salesperson said, "This would keep you warm but it's not waterproof." Oops. The Inlux is made with the Hyvent waterproof/breathable membrane and is seam-sealed. Of course, a salesperson can have an opinion on the effectiveness of various waterproof/breathable technologies, but he was making it sound like this product wouldn't do much to keep a wearer dry, which wasn't accurate.
The salesperson then said he would recommend that Cindy get a down coat, and combine this with a shell to allow layering. He immediately went to the Marmot women's Venus jacket and explained that it had baffling to effectively keep you warm and said that down insulation was superior to synthetic because of the natural properties of the down. Accurate enough, Jack thought, and the salesperson was trying to offer a bit of technical information without going too deep.
Cynthia asked if there were different levels of down jackets, from low-end to high-end, but the salesperson brushed past the question, indicating there wasn't much of a difference to worry about. This would have been a good time to explain the price, weight and functional differences between a 600-fill down garment and an 800-fill garment, but the salesperson missed that opportunity.
To his credit, the salesperson did take the time to show Cindy other down jackets from Outdoor Research and Patagonia. Remaining very patient and friendly, he continued to address Cindy directly, as Jack stood to the side. "You can feel free to wear any of the jackets around the store to see what fits well and feels good," the salesperson said. This was a good move, as it's always wise to get the customer's hands on the product, or even better, to get them to wear it -- especially women who love to touch and feel.
Cindy asked if they could then look at the shells, and the salesperson directed them to a Mountain Hardwear GTX 2.5 jacket. At this point, the sale seemed to lose its momentum and things got scattered. The salesperson said that it was a good brand and good jacket, but he did not proceed in any logical way to find the appropriate jacket for Cindy. For example, he did not explain that various membrane technologies and constructions not only offer various levels of breathability and durability, but also affect price.
Also, the Mountain Hardwear GTX 2.5 has zones of fleece on the interior to add warmth, but the salesperson said nothing about this obvious feature until Jack asked about it. Not that the salesperson was without technical knowledge. He did a pretty good job pointing out the jacket's sophisticated construction with welded areas and micro seam tape.
Cindy eventually asked if there were higher-priced and lower-priced shells, and the salesperson drifted over to another jacket, pulled at it and said, "Yeah, you can get something like this as low as $100." But he did not go into any detail about the jacket, and started pulling out other jackets randomly and mentioning their lower price.
Trying to get the salesperson to talk more about differences in membranes, Jack asked about a jacket from The North Face that had a Hyvent tag. "What's this Hyvent, and how is it compared to other stuff?" he asked, but the salesperson merely replied that the Hyvent was a cheaper membrane than others.
Our Mystery Shoppers got the sense that the salesperson understood most of the products on the rack, but for whatever reason could not sort through them and present them in a way that could clearly identify a couple of options for the customer. Cindy finally said that she would think over her decision and look around the store for a bit. The salesperson seemed genuine when he encouraged her to find him if she had any more questions.
Jack and Cindy continued to browse around for a few minutes, also eyeing sleeping bags, and then decided it was time to call it a day.
SNEWS® View: If a retail sale were to make an actual sound, you would have heard this one grinding down and losing steam like a braking locomotive about the time Cindy and Jack tried to delve a little deeper to make a well-informed decision. Unfortunately, had she been a true shopper, she would have also had more than a few questions about the shell jackets.
The salesperson would have been more successful if he had asked a few more questions to determine what type of shell Cindy might need or might like to have. Also, he could have offered personal anecdotes from store staff to steer her toward a particular product, or could have mentioned that a certain piece tended to get a lot of positive reaction from women customers. Instead, he gravitated toward a single Mountain Hardwear piece, and once he strayed from it, there was little logic to his presentation.
On the plus side, the salesperson started off really well with good qualifying questions, and for the most part knew his stuff, although saying The North Face's Hyvent Technology wasn't waterproof was more than a small blunder. Best of all, he focused his attention on Cindy, listened to her and treated her with respect. He also had a pleasant demeanor. Jack and Cindy could tell he was an experienced outdoors person and was genuinely enthusiastic about the products. They figured that, overall, he was a great asset to the store, but needed just a brush-up on his presentation of the shell category.
And, for the store's part, improved signage to indicate where women's jackets were located would be a very good idea.
While our Mystery Shoppers identified key areas of improvement, they felt their experience at Cumberland Transit was generally positive -- Nashville residents were in pretty good hands.