Mystery Shopper: Ho-hum experience has our runner leaving sans motivation to buy

SNEWS® heads to the Boston, Mass., area, for yet another in our popular Mystery Shopping series. We encountered a rather ho-hum sales experience at Precision Fitness, which definitely left us wanting more.
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SNEWS® heads to the Boston, Mass., area, for yet another in our popular Mystery Shopping series. 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.

Much of the Boston, Mass., area is chaotic, with busy streets and frenetic drivers dodging and weaving to get where they want. And sometimes it takes real guts to get in and out of parking lots. Getting in and out of the parking lot for Precision Fitness Equipment in Newton, Mass., was no exception. An understated storefront in a strip mall with a sign with red letters is difficult to see. We're sure we had some really ticked drivers behind us as we tried to find it and maneuver our way in.

But we made it and stepped into the small and nondescript store. No accessories or apparel meant it was just four walls with equipment all lined up -- treadmills marching down one row, ellipticals in another, bikes in another, etc. Forget ambiance or creativity. This was nuts and bolts without any chance of a warm shopping experience. Yes sir, we got steel and iron and electronics.

The sole sales guy on the floor asked our shopper Josephine if she needed any help as soon as she stepped into the store. She was the only shopper, too, on this post-Christmas mid-afternoon trip.

"Yes, I've moved here from a warmer city in Colorado where I could run outside all winter," said Josephine. "I need something to do aerobic exercise inside. But I live in an upstairs apartment and noise is an issue."

The so-far-no-name sales guy immediately recommended a Bodyguard treadmill. (Josephine had already noted the only two brands there were Bodyguard and SportsArt.) "Why Bodyguard?" she asked. He explained it had a 10-year, front-to-back warranty.

"I've been researching brands," Josephine said, pulling out the Runner's World treadmill review she had been studying, "and Bodyguard wasn't on the list."

Sales Guy said if she wanted to look at consumer ratings, she should read TreadmillDoctor.com, although he didn't really say why. She had noted the SportsArt piece had a Treadmill Doctor "Best Buy" sign on it, but he hadn't even mentioned that one or that brand.

He explained that they don't usually go by consumer ratings in magazines. For example, Bodyguard just didn't have as popular of a name as some of the others although it was extremely high quality, and often didn't make it into these magazines. Sales guy also pointed out that he'd been there for six years, had sold a lot of brands, but that the company really stuck with Bodyguard because of the warranty. "There is no point in trying to sell multiple brands," he said. "We found ones we like, and we stick with them."

"How much do you run?" he asked. Great move, Josephine thought, to figure out what level of runner she was to help direct her to the best product for her. "About four or five times a week, maybe five miles each time." Sales guy led her to some entry-level models, but said he'd likely want to recommend a piece another tier up for someone who ran as much as she did. "Why?" she inquired. He explained that the components were simply better, and said the cheaper models use parts from Taiwan that cost less. (Hm, thought Josephine, many of these are made in or get parts from Asia, including high-end ones so she wasn't sure if that was really an accurate statement.)

"And the mid-level model has a 3-horsepower motor," he added. Uh oh, here comes the techy geek stuff, she thought; she politely smiled and asked what that meant. No real explanation came except something about Sears claiming it had 3-horsepower motors on the equipment it sold, but it didn't. Kudos that Sales Guy immediately tried to steer them away from tech talk at that point, noting it really wouldn't mean much to her.

"That's fine," she added. "All I need to know is if it's sturdy enough so that my neighbors downstairs won't complain about noise."

Finally, she was invited onto a model to see if it fit her bill for quiet. But the magazine rack immediately start joggling and jiggling and made it seem as if the whole machine was quaking up a storm. Sales Guy put his hand on the rack to stabilize it.

"I wish they wouldn't show the product with the rack," he said. Josephine suggested that since the manager didn't seem to be there, he should just take it off. "I am the manager," he said.

After that rather odd demo, Josephine mentioned she had also considered a spin bike and he led her to a New Balance brand model on the floor. "We carry another brand but it's twice the price," he said, not even bothering to invite her to look at it.

As they moved through all of this, Josephine realized he had never asked her what her budget might be. The treadmill he had quoted as having a price of about $2,800, and Josephine had commented that she expected to pay as much as that for a good one, but he immediately sold her down on the bike -- this with somebody who obviously was ready to spend more. He also showed some upright stationary bikes and when Josephine said she wasn't convinced the workout was as good as a spin bike, he actually agreed! He toured her past the Bodyguard climber too, but didn't mention features, benefits or price, just how great -- again -- the brand was.

Finally, Josephine said she was probably going to shop around a bit more, noting she did have about $3,000 to spend. But no-name Sales Guy was so laid back he never tried to reel her in any harder. Our shopper began to wonder if he really did want to sell her something.

"Let me know if you have any questions or need any help," Sales Guy said, finally introducing himself at the end of the nearly 30-minute interaction. Still, he didn't ask for any contact info from our shopper so he could follow up, although he did give her a brochure for Bodyguard and his card. As our shopper was leaving, they started chatting about their respective fitness routines and he said he didn't really run or bike or anything aerobic but was more into weight-lifting. Josephine didn't think that was much of a recommendation from a salesperson.

During the course of her visit, the phone rang a few times, but he took a message, noting he was with a customer, and then apologized for Josephine for the interruption. But he never got flustered and handled the back-and-forth well.

SNEWS® View: OK, so Mr. Nice was, well, nice, and this was a pleasant enough experience, but he didn't even come close to trying to close any kind of sale or find out more from Josephine and her purchase intentions, needs or level. Shoot, this was a woman who had $3,000 burning a hole in her pocket and had been studying brands. Sure, he greeted her and asked a couple of qualifying questions, but couldn't really even offer clear answers to her questions except to keep saying what a great brand the one was. And he never did try to point out benefits. He also managed to stick his size 10s in his mouth a couple of times regarding brands and his own fitness routine.

Maybe he didn't want to be pushy in asking her to fill out a lead card, but wouldn't that be a logical step for a nice follow-up a few days later? We think so. Oh, and how about an introduction at the start or a name tag at least. Seems that would add a professional touch. We'd say this was not great, not horrible, in terms of the interaction, but just kind of ho-hum OK. And ho-hum OK isn't really good enough in today's world. A company like Precision is good enough to up the ante a bit.

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