Mystery Shopper: Salespeople will sell what they know, avoid what they don't

Several companies introduced lines of larger backpacks that featured new technologies, giving this product category some long-overdue attention. After giving retailers a spring season to get a feel for these load haulers, we dispatched a sly Mystery Shopper to gauge retailers' sales savvy.
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SNEWS® heads to Seattle for another in our popular series of Mystery Shoppers, where we enjoyed some good sales assistance, albeit a little light on the product details with some of the newer packs. 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.

If you caught last summer's SNEWS® reports from Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, you know that 2006 has been the Year of the Backpack. (Click here to see SNEWS® story: "Outdoor Retailer Summer Market '05 Trends: Backpacks.") Several companies introduced lines of larger backpacks that featured new technologies, giving this product category some long-overdue attention. After giving retailers a spring season to get a feel for these load haulers, we dispatched a sly Mystery Shopper, code-named Grits, to stores to gauge retailers' sales savvy. To make the trip an even greater challenge, we sent Grits to the Northwest to see if he could survive in a land without sweet tea and…well, grits.

At least the heat felt familiar as Grits pulled into Tacoma, Wash., on a bright blue summer morning. He struck out trying to find a breakfast of lard biscuits and red-eye gravy, but he did find Backpacker's Supply sitting on the corner of an older street lined with well-worn storefronts. Though it sits in an older part of town, Backpacker's Supply seemed fresh and new thanks to nice lighting, modern wood fixtures and a spacious sales floor.

Racks of sportswear stood up front, and a large selection of backpacks hung in three rows on the left wall. Grits made a mental note of the backpack brands -- Marmot, Arc'Teryx, Osprey, Black Diamond and Mountain Hardwear.

He then walked to the long, glass cash-wrap counter, and an employee who appeared to be in her early 20s stood up from her stool behind the counter and asked, "Can I help you out?" She and two other employees were dressed in casual clothes and did not wear nametags, which seems to be the trend these days. Hey, that's OK, as long as employees introduce themselves to make customers feel more comfortable. While this salesperson failed to mention her name, she was immediately friendly and had a relaxed demeanor which put our Mystery Shopper at ease.

"What are you looking to do?" she asked.

"Well, I'm planning to do some hiking with some friends," said Grits. "I'm really just getting into it and need a backpack."

"Do you know how long you'll be out -- multi-day or…."

"Maybe two to three days, but we might do a longer trip, for about a week," Grits said. "And I was thinking about doing Rainier sometime. So I'm not really sure what I need."

The two walked over to the wall where packs were organized logically, with larger models on the top row, mid-sized packs just below them, and daypacks on the bottom. The salesperson explained that the store basically carried three different sizes, adding that she would recommend a larger pack if Grits and his friends were doing a multi-day trip, or if he eventually did a trip on Rainier.

She immediately went to the wall and took down an Osprey Aether pack, saying, "This is a good pack and a really good company."

She then went through several of the pack's features, first demonstrating how straps on the pack allow a person to compress the load for shorter trips that require less gear and clothing. She was observant and had picked up on the idea that our Mystery Shopper needed a versatile pack that would work well for a variety of activities and accommodate large and mid-sized loads. Grits thought that the pack she was recommending was a great option.

"How much weight do you think I'll carry on most trips?" our undercover agent asked.

"Well, it depends on whether you've gotten into buying lightweight gear," the salesperson replied. "With some of the new lightweight gear, you might carry 40 pounds or a little bit more."

This was a sharp reply for two reasons. First, she recognized that there's been a real shift where fewer people want to carry monster loads, and most backpackers these days are carrying no more than about 45 pounds. Second, she opened the door to a discussion of other gear (can you say add-on sales?), noting that if he were to invest in a few key lightweight items, he could have a less hefty and more comfortable load.

Of course, comfort is a key issue with consumers, and she recognized this, explaining how the Aether's back panel allows air to flow across a person's back. "Another good thing about this pack is the hip belt can be molded to fit you better," she said. ('Sweet!' our Mystery Shopper thought. He had seen the Osprey oven sitting near the backpack wall and hoped it would enter the conversation.)

"Now, what's with that hip belt?" Grits asked. The salesperson then pointed to the oven and explained that she could heat up the waist belt in the oven and mold it for a more customized fit. She could sense that Grits was digging this pack and asked if he wanted to try one on. "Sure," he replied.

The salesperson then methodically took Grits through the proper sequence of fitting the pack and explained where it should rest on the hips. She inspected the way the shoulder straps rested on the shoulders, and asked, "Would you like to put some weight in it?"

On the floor below the backpacks, neatly arranged in a row, were several blue nylon sacks weighing 15 pounds each. (Very nice. We're always psyched to see a store that outfits departments with helpful selling tools. And it's amazing how many stores fail to take these simple but effective measures.) She put about 30 pounds in the pack, double checked the fit, and then asked Grits if he would like to walk around the store to check the feel of the pack. As he walked, she asked him a couple of times how it was feeling, and Grits was happy that she didn't simply walk off (as happens so often), because she was able to help him make small adjustments as he moved about.

Grits had noticed that the store was also carrying new packs from Mountain Hardwear and Arc'Teryx. He was especially interested in seeing how well she could explain the suspension system of the Mountain Hardwear packs, which had drawn some criticism for their complex engineering. He walked back to the pack wall, slid off the Aether, and pointed at a Mountain Hardwear Maestro. "That looks kind of different," he said.

 "Yeah, these are new," she said, and pulled the pack down. She set it on a nearby bench, and started to explain the suspension system. "It's a little complicated at first, but I think once you get used to it, it shouldn't be that big of a deal," she said. However, she needed to adjust the length of the suspension to fit Grit's torso, and she really wrestled with it for a few minutes, without much luck.

"Yeah, it's different," she said, growing frustrated, but keeping her cool. Grits wondered if the salespeople had received much product training on the Mountain Hardwear packs, and wondered whether they were selling many, because the salesperson seemed so much more confident in explaining the Osprey product.

He turned his attention to the new waterproof Arc'Teryx packs that hung on the wall and asked to see one. The salesperson then pulled down the Bora and said, "Now this is going to be one of the more expensive packs." It probably wasn't a bad idea to give fair warning about the price, since the Bora was about $100 more than the other large packs on display. Grits really expected her to go into some detail as to why it was so expensive -- its advanced fabrics and construction techniques, such as welding -- but she really only said that it was a very good company that "independently tests all of its packs and uses the best materials."

She did demonstrate the waterproof zippers, and eventually pointed out that the entire pack was waterproof. But that really should have been her first point of discussion -- that a truly waterproof bag is rare, thus the high price. Grits asked how important it was to have a waterproof pack, and she said it really wasn't necessary because a pack cover would do the job. Grits didn't get the sense that the staff was really sold on the product.

Though the salesperson was missing a few details in her sales pitch, Grits gave her points for her attentiveness and patience. Each bag on the wall was stuffed with plastic, and she had to empty each one for a demonstration. After a few minutes, the place was kind of a mess, and the eventual cleanup seemed potentially frustrating for the employees. "Sorry about making you go through all this," Grits said to the salesperson.

"Oh, no, I don't mid," she said cheerfully. "This is what I'm here for, and it's definitely better than just sitting around."

She then pulled down an Arc'Teryx Needle pack, and Grits mentioned that the back panel padding was much slimmer than on other packs. (He was wondering if she would explain that the curiously thin padding was designed to reduce weight and put the pack closer to the body for a more responsive fit and feel.) But she didn't follow his lead. Again, our Mystery man suspected that she lacked the training and/or experience to effectively sell the new Arc'Teryx product.

Another customer entered the store, and for the next 10 minutes, the salesperson did a good job juggling two customers at once. Grits had been in the store well over 20 minutes, and had pretty well surveyed the scene, so he told the salesperson he'd wait to make a decision. He asked her name, she replied, "Anna," and Grits said goodbye. As he strolled out, he felt he had been treated very well and that Tacoma backpackers were in good hands. However, he suspected that some new product might have rough days in the Year of the Backpack unless some serious product training ensued.

SNEWS® View: A good attitude goes a long way. Our Mystery Shopper was willing to overlook Anna's few missteps (for example, not introducing herself early on) because she was paying attention, offering good advice, and making a real effort to meet customer needs. She obviously knew the Osprey pack line backward and forward and smartly highlighted the features that would help a beginning backpacker feel more comfortable on the trail. We liked that she was paying such close attention and trying to get feedback, even when Grits was walking around with the pack, to ensure that it was a good fit. Also, she made good use of tools like the oven and the weight bags. As for the new product, she clearly was not as comfortable selling those, and, as a result, we suspect they're not getting pulled off the wall as often. We're also not sure whether the store or a rep has taken the time to ensure that the employees know how to navigate the Mountain Hardwear packs smoothly, or justify the expense of the Arc'Teryx packs. It's great to see manufacturers pushing the boundaries in pack design, but they must also make strides in educating retailers. Stores too must take responsibility to educate their employees about product the buyer brings in, otherwise, the product is destined to gather dust while employees gravitate to familiarity.

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