Mystery Shopper: Hel-LO! I'm here to buy… Hel-LO!

This is now the third installment in our continuing and occasional series of stories about our mystery shopping experiences at fitness stores. Although in our third round (the first was Dec. 20, 2004 and the second was Feb. 14, 2005), we'd like to briefly re-state that our only intent in running these is as an educational tool, and only an educational tool.

This is now the third installment in our continuing and occasional series of stories about our mystery shopping experiences at fitness stores. Although in our third round (the first was Dec. 20, 2004 and the second was Feb. 14, 2005), we'd like to briefly re-state that our only intent in running these is as an educational tool, and only an educational tool.

Our goal is never to point a finger at one solitary store or any one salesperson and say "best" or "so bad." Frankly, we could perhaps go on another day into the same store that just did well 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 the next. Everyone has good days and bad days. Sometimes we all get stuck in ruts and forget about what we're doing – or should be doing. This is really all 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.

So read on for another glimpse into a retail selling experience that any one of your customers at any one of your stores could have.

We drove alone down Route 9 East a.k.a. Worcester Road in Framingham, Mass., a street that itself doesn't have a lot of specialness with its strip malls and chain stores. It didn't take our shopper, Malcolm, long to spy the Total Fitness sign. It stood out like blossoms springing from a peach tree on an early spring day. Good thing, too, since the store is set far enough back from the road that without the bold red-and-white lettering, it would be easy to miss. The guidance was great.

The parking lot was small, but adequate. Glancing at the store's exterior two things were very, very, very clear: 0 percent financing and it carries Bowflex -- both on large yellow banners that take up much of the front window space. Can't see a lot of the equipment through the signs, but Malcolm thought, at least they'll entice some customers in the door with the signage.

Once in the door, though, signs were pretty minimal. Whew, at least the used-car-lot sign syndrome was toned back to make for a more special experience. Nevertheless, Malcolm still didn't know what brands it carried, other than a Precor sign spied in a corner near the ellipticals.

A lone salesperson on that early April day was finishing up a presentation of a strength rack with a customer. He didn't greet or acknowledge Malcolm (we hadn't given this operative the Invisible Pill, so we knew that wasn't it), but Malcolm gave him some slack and wandered the store to check it out. "Pretty neat," he thought, other than the Styrofoam debris in one area where the salesman had likely been unpacking some goods when the current customer walked in. Too bad he couldn't have done that after hours. "Clean too," he thought. No dust, no smudges, no fingerprints. Nice and inviting.

Still on the search for really inspiring store layouts, we were again left uninspired. The equipment was lined up like little soldiers. OK, same in most stores, but we hope for inspiration … some day.

Finally, a little over seven minutes from when Malcolm walked in, the salesperson was done with the other customer, and our operative eagerly looked his way expecting to be approached. How wrong. The salesperson sauntered behind the counter to take care of some paperwork. Tick tick tick…another three or four minutes passed by. Finally, 10+ minutes after Malcolm entered the store near the "0 percent financing" sign, he was greeted -- good thing Malcolm's good at entertaining myself. Low-pressure sales are grand, but how about a hello?

"If you have any questions, just let me know," he said, politely enough after finally walking up to our shopper. But the salesperson quickly returned to his desk and the seemingly omnipresent paperwork.

Malcolm wandered around a few more minutes and noticed some of the other brands on the floor besides Precor and Bowflex. There was a smattering of Keys, Nautilus, Schwinn, a lone Ab Lounge, and some free-weight equipment from Cap and others. Finally, he tired of being alone. Another five minutes had slipped by. So Malcolm went up to Paperwork Man.

"What's the difference between the Precor elliptical and the other brands?" he asked. "I'm familiar with the Precor from my gym but haven't been on the others.”

Paperwork Man explained that the main difference was the Precor Cross-Ramp. "You can't get that on other brands," he said. (Wait, Malcolm thought, what's that?) Plus, the salesperson noted that Precor has an upper-body feature too. "In the end," he said, "it really comes down to feel, price and performance.”

Ummm, OK, our shopper thought, feeling a bit befuddled. What did he mean by performance and feel? He didn't offer further explanation and didn't suggest yet Malcolm get on any pieces to "feel" the "performance," so he felt a bit intimidated.

"I'm shopping for my wife's birthday," Malcolm finally revealed. "After two years of being home with our son, she's getting kind of anxious to start working out again and worries she won't have time to get to a gym where she used to swim."

Malcolm figured if the salesperson wasn't going to do the qualification part of the presentation, he may as well help out. Lots of things to pick up there: "wife," "birthday," "present," club familiarity, former swimmer…. You go, Paperwork Man.

"Hop on them," he said, pointing at the ellipticals, "and try them out and see how they feel," he added. Ah, finally an offer to "feel" an elliptical at least -- not that he told our shopper what the differences in feelings were. What was Malcolm supposed to feel? He was never to know since the salesperson then went back to his paperwork on the counter.

Back to alone time, Malcolm played with a bunch of the ellipticals by himself and was indeed, thankfully, rejoined by the salesperson after a few more minutes. Malcolm told him he liked the Nautilus (which was the commercial model with adjustable stride). He explained it was the club model, but that Nautilus also owns Trimline, Schwinn and Bowflex so a good company backed them all. Not sure what he meant by that since our shopper hadn't noticed or used the others.

He then asked about the TreadClimber, which was at the end of the row of ellipticals. "My wife saw it on TV and thought it looked interesting," Malcolm said.

"It is a different movement, but it's also a hard workout," he assured our shopping operative. Wait, Malcolm thought, he'd said this was for his wife who hadn't worked out in two years and had been a swimmer. He wasn't sure that knowing it would be a "hard workout" would be the best motivation for her -- or for a lot of consumers who walk in new to exercise.

Anyway, Malcolm guessed that paperwork called because at that point he said our shopper should bring in the wife over the weekend and have her try out the stuff and see what felt best to her. Not getting much of a chance to say anything, he then shook Malcom's hand and told him to have a great day, not leaving much choice other than to leave.

You know, Malcolm would have been really happy to bring in his wife, although how did the salesperson know the equipment wasn't supposed to be a surprise? Even so, Malcolm never got a card, flier, brochure, name or phone number, so he doesn't know who to ask for, how to find out when the store was open, or how to explain what it is he saw. The salesperson never introduced himself even, and Malcolm really didn't learn anything about the equipment, its differences, benefits and, yes, even the feel -- certainly not enough to get me closer to a decision.

Paperwork Man seemed nice and friendly enough, and he seemed to know his stuff (from what we overheard from the previous customer), don't get us wrong. He just didn't work all too hard at offering us the special service and education that one would expect not only in a specialty store, but also when looking at equipment that's going to take a couple thousand-plus dollar ding out of the wallet. He never asked the questions you'd expect about needs, room and space, type of person the wife is, preferences, time constraints, or offer to explain other types of equipment. How did he know that with the right amount of information Malcolm wasn't ready to plop down his money then and there? He didn't. And Malcolm didn't get a chance to say so.

SNEWS® View: As we of course have said, will say, and will continue to say, this is a one-shot experience. Later that day, the next day or the week before, all could have been different -- better or even worse. It is a snapshot in time that only says what is going on in that moment. We know Total Fitness has a long-standing and solid reputation run by great folks, so it must be doing more right than we experienced. But a new Gym Source is down the road and Precision Fitness is also established in the area, so taking anything for granted in the market isn't the way to hang on. If only the sales presentation would match the other things that all seem to be right at Total Fitness.


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