Mystery Shopper: On the hunt for the elusive TreadClimber

Our Mystery Shopper heads to Little Rock, Arkansas, in search of the elusive TreadClimber.
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SNEWS® has now bounced back to the heartland of the country in our search for a particular piece of equipment. It was a challenge, to say the least. Still, as we always like to point out: Our goal with these Mystery Shoppers is not to pick on one person or one store -- or to praise one particular store or person -- but to point out what went wrong and what went right and, hopefully, 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 (www.snewsnet.com/trainingcenter) to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.

It was Alice’s (not our mystery shopper's real name) first visit to Little Rock, Ark., a beautiful city with green rolling hills in the center of the state. Alice, you see, was about to embark on a shopping experience with the goal to outfit her spare bedroom with a TreadClimber in her new apartment. She had used one at her club and liked how it felt, so why not try shopping for one for her home? A male friend accompanied her on her mystery-shopping outing.

Fitness Tech was her first stop. She'd hit up Google for directions and found the store easily in a strip center near downtown. Signage was good on both the strip center sign and on the building. The front of the store was all windows, floor to ceiling (not uncommon in strip centers, of course). The store name and hours were effectively posted on the entrance door and a neon "Open" sign completed front signage. OK, simple but effective.

The store hadn't bothered with window displays and, instead, home gyms were positioned in the front windows. More equipment lined the walls and occupied the center of the store creating a circular aisle. The store carried Precor, Vision Fitness, True and PaceMaster equipment, from what Alice could see. A small selection of free weights and energy drink mixes were stocked near the back of the store along with children's playhouses and swing sets in a separate room in the far back. Nice to see a businessman take advantage of different business categories for different seasons.

Once inside the store, Alice was pleased with the clean, tidy environment. The lighting was a combination of fluorescents and incandescent, giving the interior a soft light. Music played on a radio, so all was good – except that the radio ads were somewhat intrusive. The cash/wrap counter was on the left center sidewall, which allowed a customer to feel at ease entering but still gave a salesperson there good oversight of the floor and any activity.

Alice observed that one salesperson was waiting on a customer, while a second salesperson was behind the counter. Alice wandered around a bit, looking at equipment, hoping somebody would acknowledge her presence. Then, after a long three minutes, the other customers left and a pleasant salesman named Kevin, wearing a Fitness Tech polo shirt, walked over to Alice and asked if he could help her. The salesman behind the counter never did pay Alice any attention.

"I'm looking for a TreadClimber," she said to Kevin.

He looked a bit puzzled and replied, "We don't carry TreadClimbers any longer."

"Oh. Why?" asked Alice.

"Well," he said. "They didn't do well. I've talked to a lot of other dealers, and they've stopped carrying them too."

"What do you mean they didn't do well?" Alice asked. "Do you mean they aren't any good?"

"No," said Kevin. "They just don't sell. People don't ask for them anymore."

Naturally, this would have been a good opportunity for Kevin to offer alternatives, but he didn't, so Alice took the lead and asked Kevin if he would suggest other equipment.

"I'd get an elliptical trainer if I were you," Kevin said. "You get a good cardio workout, and they are a lot more flexible than TreadClimbers."

Kevin then went on to explain why the Precor elliptical that Alice was standing next to would fit her needs. While he did a good job explaining the elliptical features and benefits, he hadn't paused and stepped back a bit to first ask anything about Alice, her workout experience, her goals, her condition, her space at home or, well, anything that was pretty dang key to sell a piece of equipment.

"This machine allows you to change the length of your stride," he pointed out. "That means you can choose a walking stride or a running stride depending on how strenuous you want the workout to be."

Hmm…Alice almost raised an eyebrow because she knew that the Precor elliptical did not have an adjustable stride length. Granted, it did allow a person to adjust the angle of the ramp, which could make it feel like your stride changed, so the salesman was either trying to simply his description, or he just missed the mark.

After getting Alice on the elliptical and letting her try it out, Kevin suggested Alice go down the street to Premier Fitness to find a TreadClimber as he was sure they sold them. Now, isn't that something: You have a customer trying out your elliptical and seemingly open to hearing about other equipment possibilities, and what do you do? Send her to another store. Just like that. Alice figured she didn't need to push Kevin any harder. Maybe he wanted to go hold up the counter too. So off Alice went down the street to Premier Fitness.

Alice pulled up in front of Premier Fitness, a smaller shop with the same floor-to-ceiling windows, only this time they were tinted so the inside was not visible. A huge basketball platform with three nets stood in front of the store partially blocking the narrow sidewalk. Why a mini-basketball arena was in front of the fitness store, we have no idea, but we dodged past it to continue our mission. A neon "Open" sign signaled the store's status, and signage on the entrance door gave the shop name and hours.

Alice noted that Premier Fitness is primarily a Nautilus store, so she was hoping she'd be in luck on the TreadClimber. But the store also carried SportsArt, Trimline and Schwinn equipment. Once inside, it was obvious that this store was not as carefully tended as the other. Two rows of fluorescents front to back provided a harsh illumination and gave the shop a "discount" look. The carpet was worn thin in spots and looked as if it hadn’t been vacuumed recently. The small cash/wrap was at the back of the store on the right and appeared somewhat lost and out of place. On the left back wall a few free weights were stacked on the floor, looking somewhat in disarray.

Bobby, the lone salesperson, greeted Alice immediately, so that was awfully efficient and made the experience feel better already. Alice said she was looking for a TreadClimber.

"The only one we have in stock is a commercial version," said Bobby, as he pointed to a very large and elaborate piece of equipment.

"We don't stock TreadClimbers, even though we used to sell them pretty well," he said. "The ones we carried had a funny clicking sound in about two out of 10 of them. The sound just wouldn't go away and couldn't be fixed. It drove people crazy so we stopped selling them."

Bobby said he had some TreadClimbers in his warehouse that were going to be sent back to the manufacturer and that he could get one, set it up and let Alice try it. That was a nice enough offer, but her confidence in her choice was plummeting downhill quickly. He expressed the hope that the one he would set up for her wouldn't click, and he smiled kindly, ready to make the move if she wanted, but Alice passed on the offer. Bobby then offered to download the specs on a couple of TreadClimbers that he could order for Alice, and he went into the backroom to his computer. Now this guy was trying to work the sale a bit more, rather than just letting it slip right back out the door. However, he still hadn't offered alternative choices in case Alice had any inkling to go in another direction.

This took longer than expected, and Alice was ready to say, "forget it," when Bobby appeared from the backroom with freshly downloaded printouts of information on two TreadClimbers. So far, so good Alice thought, but then Bobby suggested Alice go to The Sports Authority, Sears or Academy Sports to look at their TreadClimbers! He still hadn't even made a move to show her ellipticals or treadmills or to ask why she seemed so intent on a TreadClimber or anything about her own goals and experience.

About that time two people came into the shop and began to look at and try out various pieces of equipment. Not once did Bobby even acknowledge them, but continued to spend his time finishing up with Alice. Not even a "Hello" to the new shoppers.

Needless to say, Alice did not get to see or to try a TreadClimber. Her experience with the TreadClimbers in her gym had been positive, but she was left scratching her head over why neither store carried them, AND why neither store made much of a move to sell her on something else they did have.

SNEWS® View: This was not a good day for Little Rock. Not once did either salesperson ask Alice probing questions, "What do you like about tread climbers?" or "What features do tread climbers have that you want?" or "What other equipment have you tried?" Or even just pause to query her about herself or her goals and condition or why she wanted a home piece when she went to a gym. So many questions, so much time, but time that wasn't taken by two salesmen. In other words, it didn't seem to Alice that the salesmen really knew much about TreadClimbers and neither did they seem all too interested in selling her another piece of equipment. Wasn't their job to sell? Kevin made a small effort to direct her to a Precor elliptical but was so casual about it as to not leave Alice too excited, while Bobby was more helpful but didn’t even try to suggest other equipment.

What was truly surprising was how quick each was to suggest she go to other stores to find what she was looking for. Now, we realize it’s nice to help customers find what they seem to want, but at least some effort would be expected to get them interested in something you do sell. She was also somewhat surprised by the candid — perhaps too honest — responses she received to her questions about why neither of the two stores stocked TreadClimbers. If there had been some glitch and that glitch was fixed, she wouldn't be motivated to try to buy one ever again.

Alice did appreciate the fact that both salesmen established eye contact with her and spoke directly to her about the equipment, even though she visited the stores with a male friend. Sometimes men are more comfortable addressing men. Thanks to them both for acknowledging she was the buyer here. Still, both salespeople could have been more helpful and more resourceful. A search for the elusive TreadClimber could have ended much more happily.

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