Mystery Shopper: Have wheelchair, will travel

This is the second installment of our continuing and occasional series of stories about our mystery shopping experiences at outdoor stores. In this scenario, we sent two operatives to shop for tents at two Orange County, Calif., specialty stores. The woman, Agent Q, was accompanied by Agent P, a male paraplegic in a wheelchair who is an active camper and skier. Read on for another glimpse into a retail selling experience that any one of your customers at any one of your stores could have.
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This is the second installment of our continuing and occasional series of stories about our mystery shopping experiences at outdoor stores. Our intent in running these stories is and will always be as an educational tool. Our goal is never to call onto the carpet any one store or any one salesperson. Frankly, we could perhaps go into the same store that did well on one day and find it flunks out completely on the next round. That's why we stress this is about education. Everyone, good or bad, can learn from our experiences. This is really about helping the entire industry lift itself up another rung, and a great well-trained sales team that offers great in-store shopping experiences is a huge part of that.

In this scenario, we sent two operatives to shop for tents at two Orange County, Calif., specialty stores. The woman, Agent Q, was accompanied by Agent P, a male paraplegic in a wheelchair who is an active camper and skier. Read on for another glimpse into a retail selling experience that any one of your customers at any one of your stores could have.

Store No. 1: Upon entering the REI store in Santa Ana, Calif., on an early Tuesday afternoon, Agents P and Q noticed that the layout had been changed for the new bike arrivals. The store's merchandise mix had been flip-flopped -- something new and different -- and they circled the store to the tent section. Agents P and Q were a bit surprised that they weren't greeted when entering, as is usually the norm at this store (they both shop here a lot when not in disguise). The store was clean, well merchandised, and uncluttered with sales staff in green vests diligently working on stocking shelves. SNEWS® chalked the non-greet up to a one-time occurrence likely due to a short shift or perhaps a staff member taking a quick bathroom break.

Once in the newly positioned tent section, they perused the offerings and layout. Because of space constraints, there were only two tents pitched -- one on the floor and a second on a suspended wood plank with product categorized underneath. To one side was a tent book with sheets of information about the store's tent stock and separating the section from the next was a wire frame wall with tent descriptions hanging from it in plastic sleeves. Our operatives were able to provide such a detailed account of the area because they spent a lot of time waiting for someone to help them.

Close to 10 minutes later, our agents hadn't been approached by one salesperson, let alone seen one in the section. Even more curious was the fact that the tent section was now situated next to the customer service desk where someone had been visible, but head down and busily tapping on the computer keys the entire time they were waiting. Not once had this person even acknowledged our agents or even asked if they needed assistance. Finally, tired of waiting and getting lonely, Agent Q approached the counter (a stroll of, oh, five feet) and asked computer dude if someone could be sent over. Note to any employee working a customer service desk: If you are at the desk, and customers can see you, no work you may be doing is more important at any time than acknowledging customers.

As soon as they turned back to the tent display, their salesperson --we'll call him Steve -- arrived, but if he hadn't identified himself as an official REI employee, they wouldn't have known it. He looked like any other customer dressed in a surf-logo T-shirt and shorts, sans badge and green vest so common at the store. This was becoming so un-REI they wondered if they were in the right place.

Our operatives told Steve they were looking for a two- to three-person tent for camping trips, preferably with two poles for easier setup in case Agent P was camping on his own. He pointed out the private-label tents on display -- one of which had two poles -- but didn't really say much about them.

They asked if there was something a bit bigger with two doors and he turned to the tent book with Agent Q. Placed a bit high for someone in a wheelchair, Agent P wasn't able to see much in the book, so he headed over to the wire screen and started looking at the tent sheets there -- actually a very good set up for someone to see all that the store has to offer and quite accessible too.

While Steve kept thumbing through the tome of tents, he didn't keep the conversation going or ask more questions, intent on his task. So, Agent Q quietly moved from the book over to Agent P at the screen display. Seeing that Steve had not taken the subtle hint that the screen setup was perhaps a bit easier for everyone to see, our agents asked Steve a question, which prompted him to join them to answer. He started taking a couple sheets down and showing them to Agent P allowing everybody to be in on the conversation again. Nicely done.

As they were winding down their search, they looked one last time at the private-label tent on display, asking questions about features. When asked what a couple tabs were used for, Steve wasn't sure and didn't venture a guess. So on that note, our operatives thanked him for his help and headed out.

Store No. 2: Our operatives continued their tent quest at the Adventure 16 store based in "The Camp" shopping center in Santa Ana, Calif. The two-story store features primarily softgoods, footwear, camping accessories, and the like on the first floor, while the second floor features the larger goods like tents, backpacks and sleeping bags.

After entering the store on an early Sunday afternoon, they were greeted almost immediately at the entrance. They headed to an elevator conveniently located in the back of the store rather than in a dingy out-of-the-way hallway. The store layout was neat and clean, and easy to maneuver for a person in a wheelchair.

Once upstairs, they quickly arrived at the tent section with three The North Face tents pitched in a pseudo camp scenario complete with a faux fire pit and camp chair. No one was on the second floor -- a potentially bad sign and certainly not a very good idea for security -- but within two to three minutes a salesperson came upstairs to see if he could help out.

Although he didn't wear a nametag, their salesperson -- we'll call him Greg -- was wearing the "outdoor" uniform of a TNF pullover and techy shorts, so he fit into the store's mix. Still, we do have to say that a nametag would have been nice. Agents P and Q told Greg what they were looking for and he started to tell them about the tents on display, providing feature highlights on each and how to find the tent's name and sleeping capacity.

Feeling comfortable, they told him a bit about the tent they were replacing, what they liked about it and inquiring about a comparison of square footage. Greg led them over to a sliding panel that had tent information sheets on it (which also slid sideways to reveal the store's tent stock behind the door) and helped with comparisons, mentioning that they also had a tent info book that he needed to track down. Hmmmm…call us crazy, but wouldn't it be a good idea to keep the tent information book somewhere near the tent area?

After a short search on the first floor, he came back with the book and flipped through a few pages to answer more of our questions about weight and fabrications. As the conversation wound down, Greg excused himself and headed over to help another couple with backpack questions and our operatives headed out the door, thanking him before they left.

SNEWS® View: Both REI and A16 are to be commended for training their staff sufficiently well that they were comfortable speaking to and answering questions from a couple that included someone in a wheelchair. It isn't always the case, we assure you.

Other than REI's information stands, which were too high for our wheelchair operative to easily reach and read, the store was easy to navigate and a pleasure to shop. It's good to remember that displays like REI's product sheets spread out on a wire screen can allow the salesperson and the shoppers as a group, to easily see what products are available, make comparisons, and ask intelligent questions.

In Adventure 16, our operatives noted that they had an exceptionally good experience that left them leaving the store with "yeah, he's got it" smiles. Although, Greg didn't probe a lot about their needs and where our operatives may take their tent, he kept the conversation going, utilized his department's tools to make everyone feel a part of the sales process, and directed answers to both of them.

We were intrigued that neither REI nor Adventure 16 even mentioned the Freedom tent by Eureka (www.eurekatent.com/freedom.asp). We've certainly written about it at SNEWS® and Eureka has certainly sent out quite a bit of press on the new tent. The three-season, two-person tent is the collaborative effort of Eureka and BlueSky Designs, a design firm noted for its work in the biomedical and rehabilitation fields.

The final word. After countless shopping trips, our testers were pleased with the customer service and accessibility in both REI and Adventure 16 retail stores. However, it's important to make sure your store is prepared for outdoor customers who are disabled and staff is aware of the following:

  • A major dilemma for anybody in a wheelchair or using crutches is maneuvering around the aisles of a store -- over-packed rounders can be like attempting to forge through an overgrown jungle without a machete. Take a walk around your floor and see if you're brushing up against rounders of apparel or gear. Now imagine if you're in a wheelchair that measures 26 inches wide and sitting about 4 feet high. In can become a claustrophobic nightmare that'll turn a shopper off and out the door in frustration.
  • Make sure your store entrance is accessible. Can a wheelchair user even get into your store? Some mountain towns have steps leading up to their front door and a wheelchair user has to get in via a back delivery door. Is there a step? Is there cement leading up to the door or a muddy dirt path? Remember, wheelchair tires are like an able-bodied person's shoes and collect dirt. If a wheelchair user is going through mud, he or she will be getting it on their tires, which then gets transferred to their hands and sides too. Also, ensure that your back hallways (if someone might use them to access an elevator) or the elevator itself is clean and pleasant to utilize. A16 deserves huge applause here.
  • Most importantly, treat disabled customers equally. Our testing couple has found on other shopping excursions that salespeople have talked to our female, non-wheelchair bound operative exclusively and ignored our operative in his wheelchair. Or, when the wheelchair user has asked a question, the information has been relayed to his shopping partner rather than back to him, like he may not understand the answer. When encountering someone with a disability, remember what our tester relayed to us: "I'm a normal guy who happens to be in a wheelchair."

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