Mystery Shopper: High Country stumbles a bit in our GPS shopping test

Located in Atlanta's upscale Buckhead area, High Country Outfitters is one of the city's last independent outdoor specialty dealers. Having shopped for a GPS unit at a large sporting goods store near Atlanta, we were curious to see how a specialty outdoor retail store such as High Country would fare in comparison.
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Located in Atlanta's upscale Buckhead area, High Country Outfitters is one of the city's last independent outdoor specialty dealers. Having shopped for a GPS unit at a large sporting goods store near Atlanta (click here to read), we were curious to see how a specialty outdoor retail store such as High Country would fare in comparison.

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.

Just before lunch, our Mystery Shopper -- Grits -- pulled into the small shopping center where High Country is situated, right next to a Steinmart store and the Atlantic Wine Tasting Room. Walking toward the well-kept tan building that houses these businesses, our operative took note of High Country's nicely appointed display window featuring a tent and other gear. He then walked through the door into a well-stocked shop with an extensive climbing gear department occupying a long stretch of the right wall, while plenty of sportswear packed the left side of the store. Grits wandered toward the back of the place, passing a rack of boats and then shelf after shelf of accessories. If there's one thing this place has going for it, it's plenty of inventory, our agent thought to himself.

Beyond the climbing section there was a large footwear department, and an employee -- wearing a green shirt sporting the High Country logo -- was helping a woman choose from the wide assortment of flip-flops. Our agent browsed the accessories for a couple of minutes until a tall, slim employee with brown hair pulled into a pony tail said from across the room, "Hey, how's it going?"

"It's going pretty good," Grits replied and walked toward the employee, who then asked, "Can I help you?"

"Yeah, I'd like to check out a GPS."

At this point, Grits fully expected to field a few questions, like "How familiar are you with GPS? How do you plan to use it? What types of trips do you typically take?" Instead, the salesman led our man to the store's main counter where two Garmin Geko units in boxes sat stacked underneath the glass. These appeared to be the only models available. Hmmm, Grits wondered…hard to sell much of something if you don't have inventory. The rest of the store inventory looked to be in good shape, but the GPS selection was lacking to say the least. Perhaps GPS is not something High Country feels it can or should sell?

"All we have right now is this Garmin unit," the salesman said and then explained that the Geko was a simple, super light unit that can help you get from waypoint to waypoint. "It really depends on what you're looking to do. If you just want something to play around with for a bit and do simple things, the Geko is good," he said.

To this point, Grits hadn't offered up much info on how he intended to use a GPS, and was instead waiting for the employee to ask some qualifying questions -- heck, even one qualifying question would be good. The employee seemed really nice and thoughtful, but he was also a pretty laid back type of guy. Our Mystery Shopper got the impression that the salesman was trying not to seem pushy, but the sale was in danger of stalling due to a lack of conversation -- you can only stare silently at a counter for so long after all.

Grits wanted to make it clear that he didn't really know that much, and that any basic, helpful information would be appreciated. So, rather than wait for the salesperson to begin asking, Grits prompted, "Yeah, I don't really know too much about how to use a GPS, and I'm just getting interested in them, but I've just heard a lot about how they can help you on the trail."

The employee then gave a fairly good run-down of the Geko's capabilities, clearly indicating that he'd been trained well on the product and that, generally, the employee knew his stuff. Things were sailing along nicely, and then the salesman added, "But if you were going to do more serious navigation, there are more complex units." Trouble was, he opened a door for additional conversation, but didn't offer many details about exactly when a person would need a more complex unit, or, what exactly, a more complex unit might do that the Geko didn't. And, unfortunately, there were no other GPS units in the display case to pull out and examine.

As if reading Grits' mind, the salesman quickly elaborated that the store usually carried the Garmin Etrex, and he said High Country would be getting in a new model, the Explorist, soon.

He still hadn't explained any differences, so Grits took it upon himself to ask what the difference was between the Geko and the Etrex. The salesman explained that the Etrex, unlike the Geko, has maps that show your location in relation to other objects. He added that you can program in coordinates, and the device would direct you to them. But he didn't delve deeply into many of the capabilities of the Etrex or other advanced mapping units, leaving Grits feeling a bit mystified. If he'd been an actual consumer with little knowledge of GPS technology and available units, he'd have been left more confused than a donut lover in a patisserie. There had been no clear explanation of the various advantages and disadvantages of these machines, and no details on the various functions and capabilities they include as the price point increases. Among the many points of comparison, the salesperson could have and should have at least informed Grits that higher-priced models often include a more accurate antenna -- important when traveling beneath the dense canopy of the Georgia mountains.

Still not willing to give up without a fight, Grits tossed a leading question at the salesman: "I noticed the Geko is $129. I've seen some in magazines that were $300 or $400. What's the difference with the ones that cost more?" The salesman replied that more expensive units primarily offer better screens, better maps and more things you can program. But, he didn't take the opportunity to talk about other interesting features such various types of memory or electronic compasses. And, he still failed to address the issue of antenna accuracy. Sigh.

Grits then asked the salesman whether a GPS was something that a person might really need or use a lot.

"Well, say you're on the PCT in a section that's not well-marked, or a trail that's not finished, and you get to a clearing," said the salesman. "You know that the trail picks up somewhere on the other side, but you're not sure where. You can mark a waypoint before heading across the clearing. Then, if you get lost or way off course, you can find you're way back to the waypoint and get reoriented."

Now that was a pretty good explanation, our agent thought. It was something he could really visualize.

Grits then asked the salesman if he used a GPS. "No, the places I go it's not really necessary," he replied. "And I'm kind of old school. I like a compass and map. A GPS is a good backup, but it's not good as the sole thing you rely on. I mean, it runs on batteries, and batteries go dead."

Outstanding!!! Finally, our agent had gotten a really great answer. Kudos to this guy for pointing out the limitations of an electronic device, and how it should complement -- not replace -- basic navigation skills and a map and compass. "A GPS is not essential," the salesman added.

Grits asked when the store would get the other models in, but neither the tall salesman nor another employee working the register could say for sure. The uncertainty over the inventory, plus the lack of product in the store, really put a damper on whatever sale momentum might have existed.

The salesman then encouraged our agent to go online and research various brands and models. "We're a Garmin dealer, and it's a great company, but there are other brands, and even Garmin makes a lot of other models," he said. (Wait a minute: Hadn't he mentioned the Explorist -- a Magellan product -- or was our Mystery Shopper hearing things?) Oh well, in any case, Grits appreciated the fact that the salesman was offering helpful tips on how to get more information. But, if Grits had actually been a buying customer with money or plastic in his wallet, the store would have likely lost his business to the Internet -- or another store.

As a closing comment, the salesperson did make a really good point -- he said that a GPS was something you really had to take some time with to learn how to use. "It’s got this thick booklet that comes with it," he laughed. It's not a bad idea to alert consumers to the fact that they're buying something that requires some practice and study before venturing into the mountains.

Grits thanked the salesman for his help, and agreed that he'd do more research on the Internet. He then walked out feeling a little disappointed that, in the contest for best GPS customer service, he'd have to give this round to the big sporting goods store up the Interstate.

SNEWS® View: Though this sale didn't exactly go great, it wasn't an altogether bad experience. Our Mystery Shopper could tell that the salesman was an outdoor enthusiast (probably a climber) and he was honest, thoughtful and knowledgeable about things for which he had received a clinic -- he knew the details of the Geko. Unfortunately, the salesman failed to ask enough questions to fully engage the customer and get a better idea of what type of product he'd need. Once he determined whether the customer needed something like a Geko or a mapping GPS, he could have described select features to give the sale some momentum. Our agent definitely got the feeling that the salesman was trying to keep things simple and, by nature, he's probably not an aggressive salesperson -- not always a bad thing. But when the customer is so uncertain, a salesperson must step up to the plate and draw out the answers. However, we would also stress that the lackluster experience wasn't completely the salesperson's fault. It's hard to be excited about a product category and sell it well if the store hardly supports it. Hey, if you're going to sell GPS, then really get behind the category and stock it with the necessary range of models. This store, packed front to back with a full range of gear, obviously understood this concept, but for some reason the principle didn't appear to apply with GPS. If you aren't going to carry sufficient choices in a product category and represent that category well, then why even sell it at all?

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