Mystery Shopper: It started out slowly, but ended with a bang

We appear to be on a roll now -- with the second of two back-to-back mystery shopping assignments that left our undercover operatives smiling. Congratulations, Erehwon in Chicago, Ill.! Granted, this was only one shopping experience at one branch with one salesman, but one that left us wanting to say, "see, that's how it should be every time!"
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We appear to be on a roll now -- with the second of two back-to-back mystery shopping assignments that left our undercover operatives smiling. Congratulations, Erehwon in Chicago, Ill.! Granted, this was only one shopping experience at one branch with one salesman, but one that left us wanting to say, "see, that's how it should be every time!" No, the experience wasn't perfect, as you will read, but once the salesperson got rolling, our operative began grinning.

Rosie looked up at the sky. Not a cloud in sight on a gorgeous fall afternoon in Chicago. Weather was begging for a short-sleeve shirt as she strolled along the yuppified North Avenue area toward Erehwon. Despite a bright blue sky, the lack of clouds and not a raindrop in sight, her job was to find a jacket that would keep her dry but not clammy when the rains and autumn weather struck.

Somehow she managed to walk right past the entrance smooshed between American Eagle Outfitters and Peet's Coffee (maybe the coffee aroma got to her head), so she walked the entire length of the outdoor mall past Whole Foods and down to Best Buy before she realized something had gone astray. Retracing her steps more carefully, with eyes scanning high and low, she quickly noticed a sign high overhead on the second-story level of the brick building, where the retail level actually was. Easy to walk past unless you looked closely at the small print on the mall-level glass door. In went Rosie, stepping into a foyer that screamed industrial loft, but had been warmed up nicely with a Dagger kayak and Marmot and Patagonia posters. She headed up the stairs past a NOLS poster and trinkets and gear that made it clear this place was serious about its outdoor image.

The stairs dropped her off behind the main checkout counter where a couple of young guys busily yakked to each other. She summitted slowly and walked right past the side of the counter. No one noticed her. Rosie circled the women's department, the men's department, the kid's department, going right past a man busily straightening hanging apparel, but still, no one blinked or nodded in her direction. She noticed a couple of employees surrounded by boxes in the footwear area. Hmm, looked like restocking or inventory or something.

Working hard to get noticed, she did several laps around the store, and finally paused to spend a couple of minutes fingering and seriously inspecting some Gore-Tex and other waterproof and water-repellent jackets. Still, no one paid her any mind, so she sidled to a rack closer to the man busily straightening clothes to make sure he couldn't miss her. Five or so minutes into her visit, he finally stepped over and asked, "You looking for a jacket?"

Rosie made the assumption he worked for Erehwon since he sported no shirt with a store logo and certainly no nametag.

"Yeah, … ummm…" Rosie paused and looked around, acting a bit confused to be sure he understood she knew nothing about this stuff.

"For more active activities?" he asked. "A hard shell?" Although she hadn't said a word, he had sized her up, obviously noting she resembled more of a runner than anything else. But the fact that he launched right into term like "hard shell" threw her a bit.

"Well, yeah," answered Rosie. She explained that her husband was this outdoor guy and he had gotten her a really fancy Gore-Tex jacket last year for some running and cross-country skiing she started doing. But she seemed to get too wet inside and the jacket felt bulky. Since she wanted to stay dry, she wondered aloud if there was something else she should consider?

"Got it," the man said. Boy, did he ever. After not being greeted, being allowed to wander aimlessly for too long, being ignored by desk staff and not seeing name badges, this guy had finally warmed up and was off to the races.

He noted the Patagonia jacket she was fingering was really good (she was standing at a rack of soft shells). Is it waterproof? She asked him.

No, he said, and launched into an easily understood explanation of what the difference was between waterproof and water-repellent, how each jacket in front of her would differ, and how waterproofness and staying dry inside was a bit of a tradeoff because the more waterproof a jacket was, the less it would breathe well at higher-level activities. He said she likely would be happier with something that was highly water resistant. He plucked jackets off racks to use them to explain the difference, pointing to linings and seams. He raced across the store to grab something and bring it back to her.

The Patagonia Figure 4 Jacket she had been fingering, he said, was likely her best choice. Really? She asked. Nothing else? He sensed her need to compare and showed a few others that offered (and cost) a little more and a little less, but said he thought they'd be too thick (a couple had thicker fleece linings), too heavy (more alpine-oriented waterproof jackets), or just too light (a simple windbreaker). He also showed her a Columbia jacket that he said was water-resistant. Rosie eyed the hangtag and noted aloud that it said waterproof. Well, he said, they're a bit underhanded about that because if you notice the tag says the fabric is waterproof, and although that's correct, the seams are not sealed so the jacket itself is not. Wow, now that's honesty and knowledge, Rosie noted.

Since he got so excited about the soft shells, she asked if it's new. He replied "sort of" because although the fabrication has been around, it's just really gotten more popular and better in the last couple of years. He explained how it was a middle ground between choices. Fleece he said is warm, but the wind will go right through most of it. Then manufacturers came up with a fleece that stopped the wind, and that was great, he said, showing a TNF jacket (and noting he had one), but it would get pilled and wasn't so durable or abrasion-resistant and definitely wasn't water repellent like a Gore-Tex. So, then came this soft shell fabric.

"And, wow, it just works!" he summed up, nearly bouncing up and down with his enthusiasm.

Well, shoot, at this point, he had spent only 15 minutes with her, but Rosie felt totally educated about shells and protection. She told him she really liked the Patagonia jacket since it seemed to be what she wanted and the price was OK too, but that she was going to assess her closet and see what was best -- heck, maybe she'd drop a hint at home even and it could be a Christmas present.

She thanked him for his time and asked him for his name: Paul, he finally revealed.

Rosie exited back to Chicago's bustling North Avenue, smiling to herself. The experience had started a bit slowly to be sure, but now she wanted to hug the guy: He was easy to talk to, casual yet businesslike, had a really approachable and friendly demeanor, made great eye contact, assessed her needs before she asked, showed her items up and down the range to offer alternatives, and offered a solid education about the products and their benefits so she could make a well-informed decision.

In fact, Rosie had to admit that even though she was only mystery shopping, she really wanted to dash back in and buy that jacket simply because he had so convinced her of its merits.

SNEWS® View:
The experience indeed started slowly and "Rosie" was getting depressed that a store the likes of Erehwon hadn't trained its staff sufficiently to ensure it greeted each and every person coming in the door to shop or look -- without exception or fail. The selection was so nice, the arrangement attractive, the loft area appealing, the décor warm without being too hardcore or too frou-frou, so being allowed to enter and wander aimlessly without a simple "hello" was bad news and could have spelled disaster. However, once Paul lifted his gaze off the clothes he was re-arranging to actually see he had a customer in front of him, Erehwon was on its way to serious redemption. It was obvious he knew what he was talking about, really liked the stuff and really enjoyed sharing the knowledge to help somebody's experience outdoors be a better one. Now, about that jacket….

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