Mystery Shopper: Sales skills on the ball, ignoring other customers misses mark

On a drive in the outskirts of Toronto, our mystery shoppers took a detour to check out the Fitness Depot store in Mississauga to see how it would do selling home gyms.
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Our team wandered recently northward into Toronto and thought it was a great opportunity to check out our retail friends across the border. We learn something every time we do one of these Mystery Shoppers 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 what's happening behind the doors at specialty retail.

On a drive in the outskirts of Toronto, we took a detour to check out the Fitness Depot store in Mississauga. It wasn't terribly hard to find on a mid-week morning although it was just a storefront in a strip mall. We could tell before we went in the emphasis was not on appearances but on equipment, pure and simple.

Our shoppers, Renee and Miguel, parked and walked in. Miguel was in tow to help out Renee since she was shopping for a possible surprise gift for her husband -- a home gym. He'd been using that old bench and barbell in the garage way too long. She didn't like the way it looked and had recently thought she should do some strength-training too, which meant thinking about bringing it inside.

The two walked in and within a nanosecond heard a chirpy greeting from the back, behind the sterile rows of equipment in the store that looked more like a warehouse: "Good morning!" The greeting nearly echoed among the steel, concrete and off the high-ceiling, making it feel really far away. The one sales guy on duty popped up off his chair and weaved his way over to us to ask, "What are you looking for today?"

Certainly can't fault the guy for lack of attention! Renee explained her needs and said they hadn't really looked much yet and didn't know what to expect, let alone really what her husband would use.

"What do you think he'd like?" Sales Guy asked. That was a great first question, we thought, although unfortunately Renee didn't really know. Sales Guy launched, obviously having been taught to ask questions and "qualify" a customer: "Usually we start by asking a couple of questions," he said, "like how much space you have, how much you want to spend,…"

"Space? Shoot, I should have measured, shouldn't I? I didn't think of that," Renee said.

Sales guy didn't flinch, eager to help: "How high are your ceilings?"

"I don't know. Normal height," Renee said, feeling pretty useless. But Sales Guy ran with it and Miguel piped in that it was about 7 feet or so.

That gave the guy enough to start his tour. Standing in the middle of a semi-circle with home gyms around them, Sales Guy pointed and explained a few differences, calling a couple "beginner gyms" (a Precor 3.15 and a Northern Lights model), explaining the companies (Precor invented the elliptical), noting one he doesn't like at all (Life Fitness Parabody G5), pointing at another Precor (S3.23) that he raved about, and noting a couple that were very popular (Torque F3, as well as the F5 that he didn't have in stock at the time). Sales Guy was also quick to hammer the Bowflex since, he said, it was only good for kids or older people and was just marketing.

He also added that the Torque company was Life Fitness. "It's the same company?" Renee asked, remembering he had said he didn't like the gym with the Life Fitness name but did like the Torque one. "No," he said, explaining that all the engineers at Torque basically left Life Fitness and started their own company, "so it's all just Life Fitness stuff." Of course, Renee knew that wasn't true and wondered why he'd say that. Perhaps he thought the Life Fitness name would carry more cache, except it wouldn't unless you went to a gym already.

He pointed again at the Torque model and said the F5 is a lot like the F3 except it has doors and the bench is attached and folds up into it.

"Ooooo!" Renee said. "Doors! That sounds nice!"

Sales Guy gave a slight eye roll, although he kept a smile, and glanced at Miguel as if to bond with the guy. "That's always the woman's response," he said. "A guy thinks, 'Oh, doors, that's just one more thing to move and get out of the way.'"

But, first, Renee wanted to find out what he had meant by some of the terms and descriptions he had used on his quick verbal tour, inquiring what he meant by "beginner," what a "fixed path" meant, and what all those attachments and cables were for. He had spouted off a lot of technical language that really was Greek to her. She also wondered why the Northern Lights gym was almost a $1,000 less than the Torque model. He explained that Fitness Depot owned Northern Lights, but it was sold worldwide and was also very popular in the United States. (Renee wondered about that one since, of course, she knew it wasn't really sold in the United States much anymore and hadn't been for years. Was this supposed to impress her about the brand?)

The Sales Guy was really friendly, kindly answering all the questions, even saying, "I know you're not going to buy today and that's OK." That actually put Renee at ease a bit, knowing there really was no pressure.

About 40 minutes into their hour-long visit, we saw another man park in front of the glass windows and walk in. Sales Guy, who had been doing a pretty good job, suddenly fell flat on his sales face: He totally ignored him, never greeted him, let him circle the store a couple of times, then after nearly nine minutes there, let him leave. Then, to add insult to injury, he said to us, "He's not happy." Renee asked if Sales Guy knew him. "No, but I'm with customers," he said. "Let him drive away in his Lexus."

Renee glanced at Miguel and exchanged an "ouch" moment, but then went back to finishing up their own experience.

Sales Guy had helped them narrow it down to either the Precor 3.23 or the Torque F3 or F5, depending on how much she wanted to spend and how important ultimately the doors were. He obligingly wrote down the names and prices for her on a Post-It note, fetched a flyer on each for her to review, and gave her his card. He also explained she could go to the Fitness Depot website for additional information.

Finally, he introduced himself and asked for her name too so when she called back, he'd remember.

SNEWS® View: Although the store had zippo to offer in the visual merchandising department, Sales Guy got his job done pretty well, eagerly greeting our mystery shopping team, happily and cheerily answering questions, and recognizing Renee had to think on a purchasing decision. He'd obviously had some training, although he still wasn't able to totally delete techy inside terms from his schpiel. But in the middle of all that goodness he managed to ignore a customer -- not even offering a hello. Who knows if that guy was ready to drop $10,000 on a complete setup? He didn't. And being ignored means he likely would walk out and never ever come back. That is not good news. We'd also like to suggest that in his "qualifying" at the start that he simply just ask questions and not say, "Well, we usually ask questions." Shoot, the customer doesn't need to know anything except that you're interested and you are. That would be like getting to a check-out at the grocery store and the clerk saying, "Well, now, I usually ask how you are today, ring up all the groceries, have you swipe your credit card, then tell you have a good day." Really.

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