With the country moving deeper into a recession, and consumers tightening their belts, the SNEWS® team wondered how fitness shops might deal with people seeking low-cost solutions to getting a good workout at home. We dispatched a member of our Mystery Shopper team -- code name, Jake -- to Jackson, Miss., to seek equipment that he could set up in his apartment without breaking the bank. When it was all said and done, he didn't necessarily find a low-budget set-up, but rather found an excellent salesman who had our man willing to shell out more than he'd planned.
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 right and what, if anything, went wrong 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/salestools) to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.
It was early afternoon when our Mystery Shopper pulled into the Fitness Expo store in Jackson, Miss. The stand-alone store off a small road was easily spotted, as the words "Fitness Expo" stood out bold and blue against the bright, white building.
Jake walked into a typical equipment showroom, albeit with soft lighting, but still a single, open space packed with ellipticals, stationary bikes, treadmills and multi-station gyms, as well as a scattering of dumbbells and accessories.
Jake saw two men sitting behind a centered counter at the back of the room, and seconds later, one of the men, wearing a tan jacket and slacks, stood, strolled to the front of the counter, and asked with a slight Mississippi drawl, "How can I help you today?"
"I'm looking for some equipment to set up in my apartment," Jake replied. "I've always been a member of gyms, and I'm looking for stuff for home." He explained that he was on a budget, but he thought that in the long run he could save money by investing in his own equipment rather than paying gym dues.
"And it's a little more convenient," the salesman interjected. "What did you have in mind?"
Our Mystery Shopper explained that over the years he had used a variety of types of equipment, from machines to free weights and dumbbells.
"Are you wanting more free weights or a machine?" the salesperson asked.
"Well, I haven't had a really good machine before," Jake replied. "So, I'm thinking maybe a combination of that and dumbbells. I don't know. I may not need the dumbbells. I'm just not sure of what I'll need, so if you could take me through some things."
"What kind of floor space do you have?" the salesperson asked.
"I have some room in my apartment," Jake replied.
"In a spare bedroom?" the salesman asked.
"Yeah, and I'll also have some other stuff in there, like filing cabinets and some office equipment," our Mystery Shopper said.
So far, so good: The salesperson was asking the right questions and making a genuine effort to identify an appropriate piece of equipment based on Jake's needs. However, he had not asked our Mystery Shopper about his exercise goals, for example, he didn't inquire about whether he was looking to stay trim or bulk up, or if he were purchasing the equipment strictly for himself, or if other family members might be using it as well.
Moving on, though, the salesman was no doubt keeping in mind that Jake was on a budget, but he still gestured toward machines from Hoist, Torque Fitness and Vectra, and gave an overview of their price points. "A multi-station gym with a weight stack, and not free weights will start out with something like this at $1,100," he said directing our Mystery Shopper's attention to the Hoist machine. OK, so this wasn't totally budget material, but it was going to help the salesman assess where Jake started twitching perhaps.
He said that for closer to $2,500 or $3,000, Jake could get something with more features. He then pointed toward the next machine to the right, a Torque TQ5, and a Vectra 1450 to the right of that machine. "You can do 25 to 30 exercises on these machines," the salesperson said.
"Are the companies all as good, or is there one you like more?" our Mystery Shopper asked.
At this point, the salesperson really began to show some enthusiasm.
"Vectra is my favorite," he said. "I've sold it since I've been here, for 14 years. It has very, very good biomechanics."
"What do you mean by that?" our shopper asked
"It's ergonomically designed and gets you in the correct position for the exercise," he said, making a nice effort to explain the concept in terms a layperson would understand. "One thing unique with the Vectra is, with most machines, you're doing a vertical bench press, sitting upright. With Vectra, you can do a flat bench press, so it gives you more of an old-school feel. And you can do a decline press.
"Also, it's small. A 6-by-6 unit. Also, for somebody that likes to do dumbbell work, there's a bench built into the system that you can use," he added.
Good stuff, thought Jake. The salesperson was pointing out features that set the machine apart. Plus, his comments about the machine's footprint and the ability to incorporate dumbbells addressed specific concerns of the customer.
Jake moved closer to the Vectra machine and commented that it looked like it packed a lot into a small space. The salesperson didn't hesitate and further demonstrated its exercise options, quickly and smoothly showing ways to manipulate the bench for a flat press, decline press, and how to slide the bench out to use it with dumbbells.
"I also like to work my legs some," Jake said. "What kind of stuff can I do with this?"
The salesperson then pointed out two other interesting aspects of the machine. "With a lot of machines, you can do a standing leg curl or seated leg curl, but with this, you can do a prone leg curl like you would have in a gym setting," the salesperson said. He then emphasized that this was one of the only multi-station gyms that could be configured for squats.
He then briefly went over the fact that Jake could do dips, shoulder shrugs, lat pulls and tricep pushdowns, and summed it all up by saying, "It's a very complete machine."
Jake was feeling pretty stoked. The salesperson knew the equipment backward and forward, though Jake wanted to see what else he might recommend.
"I guess the only thing you can't do is leg presses," said Jake.
"Yeah, that's usually a separate piece," the salesman said. "You do have the squat option, which is unique." After a brief pause, he added, "Vectra makes a leg press, but it's a freestanding unit with its own weight stack that takes up quite a bit of space."
The salesperson pulled a Vectra brochure from a nearby flier rack and thumbed through it, showing Jake the leg press unit, as well as the 1450 machine.
"So, what's the price on this?" Jake asked, pointing at the 1450.
"It's $3,299," the salesperson replied, without hesitation. To this point, he had not really questioned Jake in depth about his budget, and seemed intent that he could make the sale by emphasizing features.
Jake commented that the 1450 had fixed press arms and asked if there was a version that performed more like free weights.
"I'm not sure exactly what price you're looking at, but the 1650 is a really unique unit that we'll be getting in next week," the salesperson said.
"Oh yeah, what's cool about that one?" our Mystery Shopper asked.
The salesperson then explained that machine allowed a person to use the press arms in a fixed position or pull a pin to make it act more like free weights.
Jake knew the machine topped $4,000, and it would be out of reach for someone sticking to a tight budget. At that point, Jake sort of raised an eyebrow, and the salesman knew he'd wandered a bit too far into a discussion that probably wasn't going to go anywhere.
To the salesperson's credit -- once he realized he had inched a bit high in price -- he took that time to return to the Torque machine, which was less expensive, and he explained how its cable and pulley systems could offer more free range of motion for presses. "This is a very nice machine," he said, pointing out how easy it was to adjust the components and how smooth the pulleys were. He then encouraged Jake to sit down and try some lat pulls. That was a good move. It's always helpful to get the customer on a machine, particularly if the customer is hemming and hawing a bit. And not enough salespeople do this.
After Jake tried a few lat pulls, the salesperson walked him to a Nautilus machine. "This one we've actually marked down to get off the floor," he said. "We're rotating out the models. The way it sits there is about $3,500, and we're selling it at about $2,600. We try to rotate floor models every four or five months."
The two then discussed the quality of the various brands, and the salesperson soon brought the focus back to Vectra.
"As far as quality, Vectra is probably the best," he said. "They don't make bikes, treadmills and all the other stuff. They make about five different gyms, and that's all they do, and the quality is really high. They fully assemble every machine at the factory and then break it down and send it out. So we don't run into problems with things not lining up."
Our Mystery Shopper noticed a display rack with multi-station gym seats in a variety of colors. "So can you get the gym in different colors?"
"Yeah, you actually have four different frame colors you can choose from, and then all the different upholstery colors. It's about $200 to change the upholstery out."
Jake glanced a couple of times at a Smith rack in the back left corner of the room, and the salesperson picked up on this too.
"If you're looking outside the machine type, you're looking at a Smith machine," he said pointing at the rack in the rear that Jake had spied. "It has free weights and cables. A little more space is required," he said, noting that you have to have room to unload the plates on each side.
The salesperson was honest in assessing that this probably would exceed the space that Jake had available.
"You know, I'm wondering, with the machines do you get as good of a workout as with free weights?" Jake inquired.
"If you're looking to bulk up and put on a lot of muscle mass, the Smith machine and free weights give you unlimited weight and unlimited range of motion. That's the better route.
For toning up and general stuff, (machines) are great, and they're faster and easier. You don't have to load and unload plates, and you can do a 30-minute circuit workout pretty easily."
The salesperson then offered to compile information on the machines they'd examined, and Jake browsed the shop. When the salesperson returned, Jake was staring down at a pair of PowerBlock selectorized weights
"How do you like these things?"
"I love 'em," the salesperson replied, and quickly showed how to change the weight. "You basically have a whole set of dumbbells in a very small space."
He didn't go further in encouraging Jake to try the PowerBlocks, and you could argue that this could have been a missed opportunity -- especially since our Shopper had stressed budget when he walked in. Our Mystery Shopper had voiced an interest in dumbbells, and the salesperson could have suggested that Jake get PowerBlocks and a bench to start his home gym, perhaps adding a few accessories. On the other hand, this option allowed far fewer exercise options, so the salesperson may have viewed this as an inferior way to go for what he assessed as Jake's needs.
The salesperson handed a folder to Jake, introduced himself by name, and noted that his business card was inside the folder, and Jake could call him with any questions. What a great presentation -- one again that some stores miss. We have too often been told there are no materials, had to practically beg for information, or had a salesperson go to a website and print out something that was a bit tough to decipher.
Our Mystery Shopper thanked him for his help, and walked out knowing that he may not have found the ultimate low-budget home gym, but he'd found an excellent store and a savvy salesman.
SNEWS View: This was a really interesting experience for our Mystery Shopper who could look at his Fitness Expo experience a couple of different ways. He went in floating the idea that he was looking to set up a home gym on a modest budget, but Chad only briefly mentioned a machine that was just over $1,000, and then quickly turned to the Vectra product, which was a good step up in price. Was he ignoring the idea that Jake wanted to buy something at a low price? We don't think so, especially since Jake was intrigued. We think Chad knew that his customer's real priorities were quality and features -- after all, our Mystery Shopper asked Chad which brands were the best. Plus, he saw Jake's positive reaction as he was watching the Vectra demo, and simply fed off that and recognized an opportunity to move Jake up in price point on a machine. He likely figured he could always come down. Of course, a salesperson can only do this effectively if he really knows how to sell the benefits, and Chad showed comprehensive knowledge.
Of course, there could have been a whole discussion about using dumbbells or a PowerBlock set in conjunction with a bench as a lower-cost alternative. Could we criticize Chad for not taking full advantage of this? Maybe. But his salesmanship and enthusiasm gave him the ability to make the customer forget about price and focus more on the benefit of investing in a sophisticated machine. And his comments about the quality of Vectra as a company only went further in making Jake feel comfortable with the idea of making this investment.
At the same time, Chad was not really trying to sell Jake more than was appropriate. He quickly steered him away from things such as the Smith rack, and the discussion of the $4,000 Vectra 1650 machine was brief. Jake felt that Chad was just letting him know about other cool things available on the market. Also, toward the end of their time together, Chad went back to the Torque machine, as if trying to make sure that he offered enough information on a product priced a bit lower than the Vectra 1450.
In the big scheme of things, Chad made a good effort to satisfy the customer, had our Mystery Shopper been an actual shopper, he would have had such a positive experience that, no matter what he bought, he likely would have purchased it from Fitness Expo.