Mystery Shopper: Keeping pace in Idaho

On a blustery Tuesday afternoon in early January, our mystery shopper Ruthie spotted Advantage Fitness off US Hwy 95 in Coeur d'Alene, tucked in a strip mall near a fly-fishing shop and a mattress store. She parked the car and headed in to see what the store had to offer in the way of treadmills.
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We were starting to get a bit disheartened with our string of so-so mystery shopping experiences of late, but Advantage Fitness in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, restored our faith. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Advantage! Remember, as we always like to point out each time: Our goal with these Mystery Shoppers is not to pick on one person or one store -- or to praise one particular store -- but to point out what went wrong and what went right and, hopefully, offer a learning experience. Don't forget to visit our Training Center (www.snewsnet.com/trainingcenter) to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.

On a blustery Tuesday afternoon in early January, our mystery shopper Ruthie spotted Advantage Fitness off US Hwy 95 in Coeur d'Alene, tucked in a strip mall near a fly-fishing shop and a mattress store. She parked the car and headed in to see what the store had to offer in the way of treadmills.

Upon entering the compact storefront, she was greeted by two separate salespeople -- an older gentleman behind the counter and a younger guy striding out of the back room. Ruthie glanced around the small rectangular space that was packed with product -- treadmills lined one long wall, ellipticals in the opposite front corner, various accessories in the back corner and, tucked in the middle, a couple home gyms. If you're looking to equip yourself to workout at home, this seemed the logical place to come, she thought.

Back room guy -- sans nametag, but with an Advantage Fitness logo embroidered on his vest (later Ruthie found out his name was Jason) -- followed his greeting with "What are you interested in today?" Ruthie explained that she'd moved into the area and wasn't close to a gym anymore and wanted to get a treadmill or elliptical for her house. Instead of launching into a product schpiel, Jason started asking questions about Ruthie, waiting for answers after each one. He seemed key on finding out who Ruthie was before leading her over to a chunk o' metal and motor. We liked this start.

"What did you like about the treadmills and ellipticals when you used them at the gym?" he asked. After Ruthie explained the pros and cons, they decided to focus on treadmills. Then he asked right at the get-go, "What are your fitness goals?" Oh, one good start deserves another great question. We already wanted to kiss him, but held our cool. "I want to stay in shape for skiing and summer sports and also for overall health," Ruthie replied. He assessed that she seemed to be in good shape and probably fairly active, then continued his questions: How many times a week would she be using the equipment. Did she want to progress from a walk to a run? Who else would be using the equipment besides her?

After reading the stories of her past mystery shopper comrades -- often mediocre, sometimes horrific, and infrequently stellar -- Ruthie was pretty stoked about how her shopping experience was going so far. Jason was actually asking questions, listening to answers and formulating a strategy to show her some machines. You go, Jason! About the only thing he did not ask about were the space constraints of her home, but maybe he assumed if she was looking at bigger equipment, she had the room.

After taking a few minutes to get the low-down, Jason pointed out two models of treadmills that he seemed to think fit the bill -- models from PaceMaster and Vision Fitness in the $2,000 range. He explained why these machines would fulfill Ruthie's needs based on their conversation but didn't get into too much techno-garble. He noted that the bells and whistles were minimal, but for her needs they would help accomplish her goals, elaborating a bit more on the PaceMaster features and explaining heart-rate training.

During her short time there, Ruthie noticed that the store had really started to wake up. The phone started ringing and Jason's co-worker would interject with a question while the poor guy was in the middle of his explanation. After answering the question, Jason would quickly pick up with Ruthie where he left off, trying hard to juggle a few balls at once. Then the UPS deliveryman came in for a signature, sliding the paperwork subtly to Jason as he talked (seemed like the UPS man was used to getting in and out quickly with minimal interruptions). At about this point, Jason seemed ready to have Ruthie fly solo and play with the machines -- maybe so he could take care of a few other things before he settled back in with her -- but she wasn't going to let him off so easily, starting in with a few other questions.

By this time another couple had come in, and Jason's co-worker was working with them. Ruthie eavesdropped a little and was pleased to note he had a similar style as Jason, starting out by asking about their fitness goals and so on, instead of catapulting into techno-talk and gear-rap. So, with both sales guys occupied with a customer, Murphy's Law would of course dictate, a man would then also come in to pickup his treadmill -- one of which Ruthie and Jason happened to be standing on and talking about.

Now Jason was a bit flummoxed because he was trying to help Ruthie, but had to take care of the customer picking up his machine as his co-worker was engrossed with his customers. Poor guy. It wasn't just a matter of getting the machine off the floor and unpeeling Ruthie's fingers from their grip. Jason also had to go across the street to a storage unit and get a cover for the exiting machine. He explained the situation to Ruthie and encouraged her to work with the treadmills and get a feel for them, promising to return in five minutes. "My coworker Dick can answer any questions you have while I'm gone," he promised helpfully as he hurried out.

Ruthie took the few minutes alone to check out the other treads on the wall -- heck, most customers likely wouldn't mind a few minutes on their own. Upon his return (which actually was only the five to seven minutes promised), Jason looked a little relieved that Ruthie had stuck it out. "You must really like me," he quipped. Based on what she'd seen while he was gone, Ruthie started a new line of questioning: What's the difference between the PaceMaster and the higher-priced Landice models? How about these treadmills that are $1,500? What are these programs on the PaceMaster, and how do they work?

Jason hung in there, keeping good pace and, in each case, supplied enough information without getting bogged down in details. He explained that the Landice was the crème de la crème of treadmills, with a beefier deck and different materials. He also showed her how the various programs worked on the PaceMaster, throwing in that the manual would explain them in further detail.

Ruthie felt satisfied with the answers and that it was time to wind down. She asked for brochures on the machines, which Jason obliged, and then he shook Ruthie's hand and introduced himself. Not being able to resist a couple parting questions, Ruthie asked about the longevity of the brands Jason had told her about. He explained that the companies had each been in business for 35-plus years and all they produced and focused on was treadmills, which could give her confidence in the product. He also rattled off the warranties on the machines in question. (Of course, that wasn't exactly true of the Vision, but we can go with him on this.)

With that, Ruthie said her goodbye and made her way out, truly interested in more investigation of the suggested models for her home.

SNEWS® View: All in all, a very solid customer service experience at Advantage Fitness. We were utterly relieved and thankful that we could strike oil on another mystery shopping experience, maybe even gold. No, we never did leap over the treadmill deck and plant a big wet one on Jason, but we could have. He kept the ball rolling (in fact, deftly managed to juggle about three or four of 'em), answered questions with just enough info, didn't overcomplicate the discussion and -- the best part perhaps -- actually asked questions before he started his sales routine.

If we were to quibble about little details, we'd throw out the meager following three comments:

1. Another question to add to Jason's arsenal would be to inquire about space constraints for the machines in question. Even if the customer mentions in passing that they have a house, ask where they plan to put the machine and ensure they know how much space they will need for the piece. Machines can be deceivingly huge once out of the store environment and in the home.

2. Although there were heart-rate monitors propped on many of the store's machines, Jason didn't suggest buying one when he was explaining the treadmills' heart-rate training. Maybe he assumed she knew about this stuff since she'd gone to a gym, but that is perhaps one assumption too many. Also, now that he knew Ruthie was looking to stay in shape and was not near a gym, there would have been room for more product add-ons, such as stability ball or stretch cord. Of course, maybe he didn't want to slam too much on her all at once and figured he'd take that next step when she came back to buy. At that later date he might establish enough of a relationship to even bring up the idea of Ruthie buying a home gym.

3. Lastly, Jason mentioned when we started that one of the treadmills was going to be picked up that day. Perhaps it would have been wise to prepare first thing so he wouldn't have had to interrupt his time with a customer. That may not always be possible, but it's worth a try since leaving a potential sale hanging could kill the sale.

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