Mystery Shopper: In hot pursuit of kettlebells but steered away to an alternative

In a bustling downtown section of Spokane, our mystery shopper headed to Spokane Exercise Equipment, located on Main Street and part of a blocks-long shopping hub. It was around 1 p.m. on a Monday and Linda's mission was to shop for kettlebells, so she could tone up and get stronger for her regular hikes and walks and to work her upper body muscles more than her other activities did.
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Our team happened to be passing through the Spokane, Wash., area recently and decided to stop in at one of Spokane Exercise Equipment's two stores. We learn something every time we do one of these Mystery Shoppers and hope you do too. We always like to point out: Our goal with these Mystery Shoppers is not to praise one particular store or person -- or to pick on one person or one store -- but to point out what went wrong and what went right and, we hope, to 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 to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers, at both fitness and outdoor stores, for additional perspective on what's happening behind the doors at specialty retail.

In a bustling downtown section of Spokane, our mystery shopper headed to Spokane Exercise Equipment, located on Main Street and part of a blocks-long shopping hub. It was around 1 p.m. on a Monday and Linda's mission was to shop for kettlebells, so she could tone up and get stronger for her regular hikes and walks and to work her upper body muscles more than her other activities did. Because she lived quite a ways from the nearest town with a gym, she was looking for something that was effective and could easily be used at home.

After parking a block or so away from the store at a metered parking spot, Linda walked into the store and was immediately struck by its size: The downtown location had a large showroom with brick walls and neat rows of cardio equipment. The main room had a small divider wall where accessories hung and farther back was an area for various free weights. Beyond that was a second smaller room with strength machines. Everything was clean and organized -- an inviting environment for a new shopper.

The store was empty, but Linda had walked in at the same time as an employee (he had on a branded shirt) who was loaded down with a briefcase and binders, but he quickly said he'd send someone down from the upstairs office to help her. Since she had three or four minutes to kill while she waited, she wandered around to see what the store offered and spied her mission's objective: a table in the free weights section with non-descript black kettlebells of various sizes and weights.

She was soon met by a fit, mature woman in street clothes who asked Linda how she could help out. Linda said she was looking to add to her workout regime and tone up and that she had read about kettlebells in a magazine and wondered if they had any since it sounded like a great option for her.

The employee -- we'll call her Jane since she didn't have on a nametag -- paused and just stared at Linda for a moment after she posed the question. She stared so long, in fact, Linda wondered if she had committed a faux pas by asking for a kettlebell in an equipment-heavy store, if she had mispronounced the word, or if maybe she still had a piece of her lunch in her teeth.

Jane finally broke out of her stare and said, yes, they carried them, but said only "meatheads" asked for them and they'd hardly sold any. "They're a gimmick," she said, explaining how they had been around for a long time, starting in Russia, and were coming back again.

A bit surprised by the response, Linda pushed forward a bit and asked if they would work for her toning goals. Jane picked a larger kettlebell up and lifted it over her head, saying, "I think they're hard to handle and too heavy for you."

With that not-so-ringing endorsement, Linda decided to try a different tactic. "What would you suggest instead for toning up?"

Immediately, Jane said Linda's best bet would be a free weight set -- an adjustable dumbbell made by PowerBlock, for example, and a bench. "You can get a complete workout," she said of the setup. She shared her own experience of using this method for working out when she visited her mother. "I have weights and a bench at her house for when I visit, so I can get a workout in. It all slides under the bed. It's convenient and out of the way."

Linda looked at the stand with two different sets of Powerblock models -- the smaller Sport 2.4 and the larger Sport 5.0. Jane said the smaller version with the 3- to 24-pound weight increments would work fine for Linda, adding that she probably wouldn't be lifting any weight over 24 pounds. She showed Linda how they worked, noting they were one compact piece and had been on the market for a few years. She pointed out that Linda could buy two PowerBlock weights for $130. The weights sat on a stand and Linda asked if they came with it. Jane said that was extra but didn't push it.

Linda inquired about a bench and what she would need. Jane led her into the smaller showroom to point out a particular bench. "It's $149 and can be folded down to slide under a bed." Obviously honing in on Linda's request for something for her home, Jane showed how the bench adjusted up and down, and then attempted a demonstration of how to get it to collapse flat. She ran into some difficulty, not remembering if the lever needed to be unscrewed or just pulled. She struggled a bit with the adjustments, even joking about how she would be the one to mess up the demonstration. Jane finally got it to work, saying, "No, it's not broken, it's just me. It's not that hard to use."

Linda liked Jane's self-deprecating attitude, noting that she lightened the mood by joking about the situation rather than getting flustered by it. Once Jane figured out how the bench collapsed down, she quickly showed Linda how it worked, but never suggested she try it out to get a feel for it, with or without the weights.

Back in the main showroom, looking at the PowerBlocks again, Linda asked about exercises she could do with the weights. "Do they come with a booklet? Do you have any workout videos?" Jane said they didn't have any videos and wasn't sure if the PowerBlock came with a poster or booklet of exercises.

"You could go online and probably find something," she said. To prove the point, Jane helpfully hopped on a computer and immediately did a search. She motioned to Linda to come behind the counter and showed her page after page of exercises on the PowerBlock website. Jane offered to print out the workouts for Linda and disappeared upstairs to fetch them.

When she returned, Linda broached the kettlebell topic one last time. Jane stuck to her guns, saying again they were a "gimmick." She compared the price per pound for a wide range of kettlebell weights to the two PowerBlocks to point out the better deal of the PowerBlocks. About the kettlebells, she added, "You're paying a lot for what you're getting."

After her 25-minute visit, Linda thanked Jane for her help and the printouts. She said she'd think about Jane's suggestions and added she really liked what she had offered. In her mind, though, Linda still didn't feel quite satisfied with the anti-kettlebell pitch since the workout seemed easy and pretty complete in the magazine article.

SNEWS® View: Linda liked Jane's demeanor. She was a no-nonsense lady who wasn't an in-your-face super salesperson. When Jane shared her own experiences of working out with free weights and a bench, Linda felt she could relate to her and could make the product switch, although to be told so bluntly that something she really felt she wanted was so wrong felt odd to her. While Jane was straightforward, she didn't ask Linda many questions about her needs, goals, experience or any injuries, which is something forgotten in many sales.

It was clear that Jane wasn't a fan of kettlebells. The brand she carried didn't come with supplemental materials or an intro DVD -- helpful and necessary tools for just about any workout product, especially if it is to appeal to somebody other than a "meathead," which we know kettlebells can and do. Still, she offered alternatives and the effort she made to find online exercise programs for the PowerBlock weights was a nice extra step in customer service. Her reaction to the kettlebell request was a bit harsh and could be a turnoff to some customers -- especially women -- coming in wanting to try them out on the heels of some very positive articles and TV features geared toward home workouts. Still, bias aside, she did offer a solid alternative that Linda could tell she not only endorsed but also used herself. 

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