Mystery Shopper: Listening and catering well to a senior in search of fitness

We don't always hit up major metro markets: In fact, recently passing through the Central San Joaquin Valley of California, we decided to see how specialty fitness was performing in Fresno. We learn something every time we do one of these 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, both fitness and outdoor, for additional perspective on the state of specialty retail.
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We don't always just hit up major metro markets for our shopping experiences: In fact, recently passing through the Central San Joaquin Valley of California, we decided to see how specialty fitness was performing in Fresno. We learn something every time we do one of these 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, both fitness and outdoor, for additional perspective on the state of specialty retail.

Mom had decided it was high time to add a little workout to her life. Didn't hurt that her doctor had told her to do just that. So, on an early winter weekend, she grabbed her fit daughter for support and consult and headed out to an area fitness specialty store to see what it was all about.

"What you got going, ladies?" the man behind the counter yelled out seconds after the two shoppers entered the doors of Wheeler's Fitness Equipment in Fresno, Calif. He was kicked back in his big padded office chair behind a tall counter in the back of the store. At first, daughter didn't even see where the voice came from, and Mom, in her late 70s with less-than-astute hearing, thought a younger man who was near the door putting together a SportsArt elliptical was the one addressing her. She turned to the younger guy and started talking to him. Daughter had to politely tell her, "No, Mom, back here,.." and pointed her toward the back counter.

Giggling rather embarassed, Mom just shrugged in response, not really knowing how to answer a question like that, then just kind spurted out, "My doctor says I should exercise."

The man started out grandly with the best first question we could hear in a store: "OK, first, do you have anything going on with your shoulders, back, knees, hips?..." No, Mom says, other than a few knee twinges now and then, which is why she thought something for an indoor workout would be better for her. He thanked her and said he needed to know that so he could better recommend equipment since different pieces used the body in different ways. Great start!

Sales guy then leaned forward, placing both palms on the chest-high counter and launched into a 15-minute speech (that was nearly a monologue) about working out, shoes, nutrition, equipment brands, and espousing all his theories about weight loss and getting fit. Interesting, for sure, and not totally off base, but other than saying, "I'm Bob," he never asked the shoppers their names or came out from behind the counter. He even praised plain ol' walking: "Just get a pair of good shoes," but Mom grimaced at that and said, "Well, we're kinda out in the country and I'm not too comfortable with all the animals and now that it's getting dark early and all…." We do have to give him credit for suggesting walking since that wouldn't even earn him a purchase. Still, Mom and daughter smiled and listened politely, occasionally asking a question, and shifting from one foot to the other. "OK, then a treadmill or a bike," he said. And he continued his little lecture. The equipment beckoned and we did have shopping to do.

Finally, the phone rang and sales guy took a time out, giving Mom and daughter a chance to turn and wander toward the equipment. He stayed on the phone for a couple of minutes -- frankly, never really excusing himself or even apologizing for the interruption -- but the shoppers realized this provided a perfect way to drag him out from behind the counter and perhaps finally start looking at equipment. They walked slowly past the gyms, around the ellipticals and toward the row of bikes. The store was set up like a warehouse with plain, packed rows of gear on worn carpet and next to scuffed white walls. Not exactly attractive but …

Finishing the call, he came out from behind his counter. Since we are at the bikes, he started there. "This is a light commercial bike," Bob said, pointing to one at the end, but not explaining what that mean. Finally, Mom felt she had to invite herself onto a bike since another five minutes had wandered by with the two still simply listening and clearly not getting any nearer to actually experiencing any equipment. It was indeed time to take action. She plunked down on the True bike and said, "This is really comfortable," and then noticed the price tag of $1,899 and gasped. "OK, it'd better be for that price." Sensing that all the programs and lights on the console were simply confusing her, Bob astutely realized he needed to pare back. "I say, 'Keep it simple,'" and led her to the other end of the bike row to the LifeCore recumbents. Good thing they didn't all need power since the first ones hadn't been plugged in and he had made only a vague effort to figure it out. She sat down and compared a couple. The least expensive was super simple with big numbers on a console and a big button. "Just hit 'manual' and you're in charge," he said. Mom liked that display a lot. 

Mom liked the simple features he was showing her on the first of the two inexpensive bikes, but noted the seat certainly wasn't as comfy as the first True bike, so he moved her up one notch, still on a LifeCore. She liked the seat better and thought for the $1,000, that comfort could be worth it but, gee, couldn't she get the comfy seat on the super-simple bike? Seems not. But she still wanted to see a few other options in equipment. Daughter prodded her a couple of times about the space they had, which is another reason the LifeCore bike was attractive to her.

Off the bike and around the corner to the treadmills. It had become clear to the sales guy that simple, simple, simple was the way to go with Mom since she was a little unsure of herself and a bit tentative around the technology: "Let's go all the way down, all the way down," he gestured them away from the higher-end True and SportsArt treadmills to the Spirits way at the affordable and simple end of the row. Good idea, too, since the console was big and plain and simple. But, per normal, we stood and looked on while he talked for another five minutes or so about treadmills and walking. He meant well, but we were getting tired of shifting back and forth on our feet and spinning our wheels, so to speak. Again, the treadmill was not plugged in. He searched around and daughter, the fittest one of the bunch, got down on her hands and knees since he asked her to try to plug it into the outlet on the floor (No, really, he did ask her to do it). Still no response from the treadmill. He looked around at switches and more plugs, then finally discovered that the extension cord that the treadmill was plugged into wasn't even plugged in -- and in fact didn't reach the outlet. Note to sales staff -- always make sure your gear is in working order on your sales floor or you risk wasting valuable time and likely losing a shopper in the process. 

Off he went to the back room for an extension cord. Back to the floor, where he handed fit daughter the cord to let her get back down on the floor to figure it out and get the treadmill working -- we've heard of involving your customers in a sale, but this was a bit much. With the power on and lights flashing, Mom got on the treadmill, holding on tight to the side rails. Bob was great, holding his hand behind her back just in case (so did daughter!) and starting really slow on the speed, reassuring her about how easy it was. Which it was. Mom liked it. Daughter was looking at it and says, "Mom, these are pretty big. Would one of these fit?" You see, daughter had noticed it was a folding treadmill. Did Bob ever mention that? No. Daughter tried three times by asking aloud about the size of the space Mom had at home to tip him off about mentioning that feature. Nothing. Oh well. Seemed like a good selling point to the shoppers. Maybe he was too busy talking about carbs and calories and fat and other nutritional tidbits.

"What if I go backward?" Mom asked about the belt movement that rotated backward. He reassured her that after just a couple of days she'd be fine and coaxed her to let go and walk normally: "Let go and just walk," he said, keeping his hand behind her back. He was really great with that part, exuding patience and care. He also noticed her well-worn Easy Spirit shoes and said, "You're already set with those shoes."

But the size issue came up again and Mom realized she needed to measure the space she had and talk to her husband before she could decide. However, she did still like the idea of the bike and felt her husband could perhaps use it also. Sales guy took the two over to the counter and found informational cards on the two LifeCore bikes to give them. Although he couldn't find printed information on the Spirit treadmills, he kindly went to the Spirit website, found a comparison sheet, printed it out and circled the one that the shoppers had looked at. Once again -- last chance here to mention it folded -- daughter asked him if it had the size on the form. He found where it said "folded dimensions" and "unfolded dimensions" and circled the numbers. Sigh. But still didn't call out the fact that it folded.

But Mom had the info. Sales guy, Mom and daughter shared a little closing small talk, and the two headed out.

SNEWS® View: This shopper was a mix of "yahoo, great stuff!" and "huh?" He started out strongly by asking about injuries. He was extremely patient, very intuitive about Mom's uncertainty and tuned in immediately to what she needed. Since he wasn't a young, super-fit guy hiimself, Mom was also able to identify with him and that created a nice bond too. But he also just talked a bit too much rather than asking questions and finding out more about the customer and, in this case, her needs and desires. The shoppers found ourselves at times kind of internally tapping their toes, plastering one of those plastic smiles on their faces thinking, gee, when is he going to get down to business? The information is good, but perhaps a slight paring down of monologue with more of an emphasis on dialogue would be better. The big blows-it from our view was not ever mentioning the treadmill was a folding version and, thus, space-saving. That is a HUGE ooopsie in the sales process, especially since Mom seemed a bit concerned about space. And although one doesn't need spiffy walls and pretty carpet, a little elbow grease and a freshening up in the shop certainly wouldn't hurt. Oh, and if you have product on the floor, make sure it works when you turn the lights on each morning.

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