Mystery Shopper: Killed by a cell phone

What makes specialty retail so special? It is a question we have been asking ourselves, somewhat rhetorically, in the last year as the outdoor retail industry has become increasingly vocal about various issues including uncontrolled distribution, over production, sinking margins, negative impacts of discounting, lower priced goods, etc. To that end, we're starting a column that will appear at regular intervals in SNEWS® that will send our editors and special operatives into specialty outdoor stores around the country. Any given day, at any time, the customer your staff is helping could be reporting for us.
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What makes specialty retail so special? It is a question we have been asking ourselves, somewhat rhetorically, in the last year as the outdoor retail industry has become increasingly vocal about various issues including uncontrolled distribution, over production, sinking margins, negative impacts of discounting, lower priced goods, etc.

Despite all of the above, which are issues that affect every level of retail, we continue to believe that the success or failure of specialty retail hinges primarily on a fairly basic concept -- ensuring that each store's brand and the entire shopping experience for the customer is more important than any individual brand carried in the store. And one of the best ways to do that is to ensure the sales team is the best trained around because sales staff are the best representatives of that store's most important asset -- its name, its brand and its image. You are not a specialty store unless your customer's experience in your store is somehow special each and every time they enter your doors.To that end, we're starting a column that will appear at regular intervals in SNEWS® that will send our editors and special operatives into specialty outdoor stores around the country. Any given day, at any time, the customer your staff is helping could be reporting for us.

The intent is not to call on the carpet or even lavish praise on any one store, because we are certain that whatever we find in one store is bound to be evident at one time or another at any other store in the country. Our intention is to provide glimpses into the retail selling experience your customers may be encountering so all retail readers can, we hope, use the information to take a look at the experience they offer and use that to ensure they are providing special shopping experiences for as many customers as possible.

Our operative, we'll call her "Z" entered the Sacramento REI store on Nov. 20 and was warmly greeted by a staff member who happened to be near the door. After a quick exchange of smiles, Z headed in and proceeded to the target zone -- the snowshoe department.

The area was easy to find, well-merchandised, and looked to have plenty of selection. So far, so good. Z eyed her watch and began perusing the goods, circling the area so as to be obvious. Five minutes went by and not so much as a sniff from the sales staff had occurred. Fortunately, REI provides solid sales-support material which kept Z occupied for the next few minutes as she read and used the buying guide so she could look as if she was trying to make sense of the product selection.

Minute number 11 ticked by, and still the sales team was a no-show to the department. Apparently, selling snowshoes was not high on the priority list this Saturday evening. Z decided to head out of the area to find out if perhaps aliens had abducted the staff. She discovered two green-vested employees with two male customers, all gathered around a snowshoe sales table that was, surprise, not next to the main snowshoe display rack but across the aisle. The older of the two sales staffers (we'll call him REI 1) was explaining features and benefits so Z decided she'd linger, listen and, hopefully, be noticed.

Apparently, our operative must have been made invisible by her stealth watch, because neither REI sales member offered her so much as a nod or a greeting. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other patiently waiting her turn. Despite using laser staring techniques into the face of REI 1, the foursome turned, blasted past her and headed off to, yes, the main snowshoe rack nearby. Ahh, so they wanted to play a game called, "catch the sales team if you can." Silly Z. Why didn't she know that?

Not one to be left behind easily, she started after the group and, praise be, got noticed by the female member of the sales duo after another minute or two -- we'll call her REI 2.

"Are you OK?" was the question tossed Z's way. We can only presume that REI 2 is trained in first aid and that she thought Z was ill, because she certainly couldn't have been asking if Z needed sales help, could she?

"No," responded Z rather bluntly, catching REI 2 by surprise. "Oh!" responded REI 2.

As REI 1 disappeared with the two male customers yet again to another wall, REI 2 stayed behind to attend to Z. Turns out REI 2 was a four-year veteran and was getting trained in the snowsports department. That explains why there were two sales staff members for two customers who were obviously together.

Together, Z and REI 2 circled around the snowshoe rack, where REI 2 tried to ferret out some information beyond what she saw in the buying guide. Z would ask a question. REI 2 would consult the snowshoe buying guide to find the answer. So went the process, with Z thinking at any moment, REI 2 would have apologized and gone to find somebody who knew more. Meanwhile, the two male customers had left REI 1 and wandered back to the rack where Z and REI 2 were. A pause in the question-and-answer session allowed REI 2 (a 20-something) to become distracted by the two 30ish male customers.

In short order, REI 2 and one of the male customers were engrossed in exchanging cell phone numbers, casual chatter about their own snowshoe equipment, and how they should get together sometime. That left Z feeling uncomfortably like a third wheel at a bar room hookup.

When Z announced after a moment she would think about it, REI 2 responded only with, "OK," then turned back to her chatter with the youthful guys. Game, set and match -- our operative headed for the exit with an unshakable feeling she'd just wasted 30 minutes of her time.

SNEWS® View: First, we need to be clear. We have, in the past, experienced excellent customer service from REI in the Sacramento and other store locations around the country. It is important to realize this scene, as we indicated in our lead-in, could happen and probably has happened in any number of stores around the country, including single-store specialty operations.

Should it happen? Not if you're claiming to be a specialty store. The incident is almost a textbook example of how not to conduct any interaction with a customer, from the greeting "Are you OK?" to the cell phone exchange leaving our operative feeling abandoned once again. It might be reasonable to expect a staff member in training to slip-up like this, but not a four-year veteran of the store. Even worse, the more experienced member of the sales team, REI 1, didn't even acknowledge our operative. In a specialty store environment, personal and engaging interactions with your customers are essential, but at no time should that mean the blinders are on to other customers that might need help, have a quick question, etc. It is not hard to say, "Excuse me a moment," to your current customer and look up to see what you can do to assist a customer nearby.

Also, at no time should a customer be able to stand in one place in any specialty store for 11 minutes and not have at least one salesperson look in -- that's just common sense, good customer service and good security.

As for the actual sales help Z received, think to any shopping experience you have had where you asked a question and the salesperson assisting you, no matter how well-meaning they were, simply answered questions by reading hangtags or looking at POP displays or referring to printed buying guides the store distributes -- items you could have easily read yourself. Likely you felt that you weren't really receiving much assistance at all and that the only reason the salesperson was there was to facilitate the conveyance of the chosen product to the counter and take your money to close the sale. Not special. Not special at all.

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