Mystery Shopper: Nice, but shouldn’t we close the sale?

As an educational tool, SNEWS® two weeks ago began this column, debuting it initially in outdoors. To appear at occasional intervals in SNEWS®, the column will report on our editors and “operatives” as they make shopping forays into specialty stores around the country – and any other retailers we feel could offer some learning. In other words, on any given day, at any time, the consumer your staff or your customer’s staff is helping could be reporting for us. This week we are expanding the column to the fitness area, although we firmly believe that any retailer of any category can learn from what we see and experience in any store or category to some degree.
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What makes specialty retail so special? It is a question that specialty retailers must ask themselves constantly – especially in the last few years as full-line stores have attempted to “specialize” some departments, including fitness, and as some specialty stores have grown into a hybrid of big-box and specialty a.k.a. a large-format specialty store.

Despite all of the issues that affect every level of retail, we at SNEWS® 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 important assets -- its name, its brand and its image. You are not a specialty store unless your customers' experiences in your store are somehow special each and every time they enter your doors.As an educational tool, SNEWS® two weeks ago began this column, debuting it initially in outdoors. To appear at occasional intervals in SNEWS®, the column will report on our editors and “operatives” as they make shopping forays into specialty stores around the country – and any other retailers we feel could offer some learning. In other words, on any given day, at any time, the consumer your staff or your customer's staff is helping could be reporting for us. This week we are expanding the column to the fitness area, although we firmly believe that any retailer of any category can learn from what we see and experience in any store or category to some degree.

Let's be clear on one point: The intent is not to call on the carpet or even to lavish praise on any one store. That's 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.

Round No. 1: In this installment, our operative, let's call her Natasha, entered the Boulder, Colo., Busy Body Home Fitness store near noon on the morning of Dec. 15. Actually, the sign still said Advanced Exercise Equipment, but she knew otherwise. Before she entered the attractive brick building on Pearl Street, she found herself a bit frustrated by congested parking in the strip mall lot. Ah, the travails of holiday shopping and lunchtime when a store is surrounded by a bevy of favorite fast-food eateries.

“Enough signage to know what you're walking into, but not too flashy or cheesy,” she thought, eyeing the signs in the window for several key brands such as Precor and Life Fitness. Cleanliness wasn't an issue: The lone salesman was carrying around a Windex bottle and rag wiping down everything as Natasha walked in. The only customer at the time, she went on to explain her chosen ruse: She was an outdoor runner who recently moved to the area, but didn't like the cold. She wanted a treadmill for indoor running, as well as one her deconditioned husband could start using.

“Can I help you?” the salesman asked politely, putting aside the Mr. Clean routine for a moment. Once he heard the story, he led her over to two models of treadmills although he hadn't asked yet about price limits.

“I think these would be best,” he said, going on to explain about durability and the “feel” of a deck being so important – hard or soft depending on whether you were used to outdoor running or had knee problems or anything. Hmm, pretty understandable, Natasha thought. “So once we figure out what kind of deck feel you like, we can figure out the type of programming you might want and we can choose that model and the best console. Nice, Natasha thought – not a lot of techno-garble or jargon.

“Since your husband, being deconditioned, would have to be more concerned with his joints, I recommend a treadmill that is softer so it's less harsh for him,” he explained. He said Natasha could probably get used to a softer feel, but she pointed out she ran mostly trails. “Oh, you'll be fine then,” he added.

Then came the big price question: When he said the treads ran from the “teens” to about $7,000, Natasha's eyes popped out of her head. “This is a high-end store,” he said, “so if you're looking for something cheaper, I can send you to a sporting goods store or even the Sears.” Just then, another customer walked in, and Natasha didn't want to hog his time, so she excused him to take care of her while she looked around. Turned out that customer owned a small gym and was looking for some boxing equipment he didn't carry, but he was so kind to refer her to a place he knew that did. Now, isn't that nice and helpful, Natasha thought. Then a truck pulled up to pick-up a home gym to deliver it. “Wow, busy place,” she thought, feeling a tad sorry for the driver in the chaotic and congested lunchtime lot.

About that time, Natasha and the salesman realized they might know each other, so with her ruse disintegrating, she quickly exited. As The Moscow Rules stated – rules that the Cold-War spies swore by — “Vary your pattern, and stay within your cover.”

Nevertheless, the experience was positive, helpful and friendly, and the salesman – who had experience as a fitness instructor — seemed very knowledgeable, she said, with his experience allowing him to work with customers to figure out what might be best for them.

Round No. 2: Natasha returned to the same store two days later to finish her shopping and to better “pick the time and place for action,” per another Moscow Rule. Turns out the store's sign was being changed when she arrived so it was now officially a Busy Body Home Fitness. Natasha entered the store again, this time staffed by a different salesman who had just started helping another woman also shopping for a treadmill, so she just stepped into that presentation. That woman's situation was a bit different, however, with an injured husband who can't run, so they both walk, but her son runs. They wanted to start working out at home since going to a club didn't work anymore.

Funny thing, though, despite seemingly different needs, the salesman showed them both the same treadmills — one Life Fitness and one Precor — the same as the first time although the store sells other brands (Vision, Pacemaster, etc).

“These brands are the best because they make both commercial and retail product, and they both have a more ‘giving' deck,” he explained, also noting the interactive console and the benefits of heart-rate monitoring (although the other woman may have been nodding, for all we know she was thinking, “What's that?”).

“I'm intimidated by heart rate calculations,” Natasha said, and he went on to explain how easy it was with the interactive console. Oh, that makes sense, our operative thought.

The presentation continued, and Salesman No. 2 was also very friendly and not pushy at all, simply explaining benefits and differences and answering questions. In fact, he didn't try to up-sell at all either. Of course, he also didn't really try to close the deal with either of them – a bit of a gap, it seemed, since that can be done nicely and without being pushy. He also didn't try to point them toward any other products such as balance balls, weights or books.

Natasha politely asked for some literature — he didn't seem to be ready to offer that without a prod — and his name and card, also prompting him to give it to the other woman. Then our operative exited without more than a “thanks for coming in” from the nice salesman.

SNEWS® View: First, we need to be double and triple clear. All stores can offer varied experiences; even the same store at different times. So, again, this column shouldn't be interpreted to say, “Oh look, Retailer A is soooo bad,” or “Oh, look, Retailer Y is just awesome.” In this case, we'd say the retailer did a pretty nice job greeting, explaining, and generally being helpful. Great stuff! The only failure, it seemed, was the salesman's lack of prodding a bit more about desires and intent and trying to close the sale — of course, in a nice way. We have no idea what happened to the second customer during the second experience. Maybe the salesman felt he needed to focus on her, which is why our operative wasn't asked about her needs. But if that other customer were handed a card, as a bit of an after-thought, she likely left without a purchase either. Of course, people don't necessarily drop a few thousand without mulling it over a bit, we suppose.

The other failure in both cases, in our opinion, is the lack of actually inviting a customer to get on a piece of equipment so they can figure out if it feels good or not. Every piece is different, from button placement to rail positioning. How can somebody figure out what “soft” or “hard” deck means without getting on it? Then there's the issue of brand. Not that Life Fitness and Precor are bad brands. My goodness, not at all. Quite good. But why did both salesmen immediately veer to those two without perhaps prodding a bit more about needs, tastes or price preferences?

All in all, we'd say this was indeed a pretty “special” experience that, despite not resulting in the immediate attempt for a sale, would have left a pleasant taste in a customer's mouth so they'd come back when they were ready to buy.

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