Mystery Shopper: Solid selling skills, explanations steer customer to dream workout area

It was a Tuesday afternoon in Beaverton, Ore., when our mystery shopper decided to drop in on the Fitness Shop, a four-store chain based in the Pacific Northwest. With some extra money burning a hole in her pocket, Meg’s plan was to see how the salesperson would help her equip a workout room in her home.

Our goal with 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, to offer a learning experience to any and all retailers. 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.

It was a Tuesday afternoon in Beaverton, Ore., when our mystery shopper, Meg, decided to drop in on the Fitness Shop, a four-store chain based in the Pacific Northwest. Meg’s plan was to see how the salesperson would help her get a workout area set up in her home.

Driving down SW Canyon Road, Meg almost missed the relatively small sign on the street, but made the turn in time. Sandwiched between two shops in a strip mall, Meg entered to find a showroom set up like many other fitness specialty stores she had perused before. Ellipticals in the window, treadmills lined up on one wall, equipment like stationary bikes and cable machines in the middle, various weight machines and weight-related pieces along the opposite wall, and accessories housed in the rear by the register. With minimal wall adornments, it was utilitarian in appearance, but it was clean.

Shortly after walking in, a “hello” from the back of the store greeted her. A salesman dressed in street clothes, who didn’t identify himself until later, came out from the rear of the store to find out what Meg was seeking.

“I’m looking at setting up a workout area in my house and wondered if you could help me figure that out,” she said. “I’m not sure what I should be looking for. I haven’t been getting to the gym as much as I’d like and have some money from a tax refund I can use.”

With that, the salesman launched into a litany of precise questions to gauge Meg’s needs and interests:

“How big of an area do you have?”

“I have some space in the basement of the house,” she said being a bit vague.

“What do you find you like to do? Do you have a routine you already work with?

“I like a cardio workout and working out with weights,” she replied.

“Do you find you workout more with free weights or cable weights?”

“I work out with weights and some machines at the gym, but I’m not sure what a cable weight is,” she asked a bit lost by the reference.

“Do you like treadmills, bikes, ellipticals? Do you enjoy one over the other?”

“I like them all, but feel I get the most out of a treadmill.”

“Do you have bad knees or lower back?”

“No,” she said.

“Will anyone else be using the equipment?”

“No, just me.”

Meg thought, “Wow, he’s just drilling it down.” She couldn’t remember the last time she was asked simple probing questions that got down to the root of what she wanted.

After laying the groundwork, he walked Meg through a set-up that he said he felt would address her needs. He walked over to the hand weights and benches, suggesting a horizontal or vertical rack and a small set of dumbbells. He noted that it would keep everything organized with room to move around it. Then he pointed out an alternative: a cable machine from Tuffstuff. There was that term “cable” again.

“It gives you all the movements you’re going to need and a full range of motion,” he said as he pointed out the bench seat, showing how it swiveled around and folded down.

Meg said she’d never really heard of a cable machine and asked if it was fairly easy to use. The salesman said, “Absolutely,” and pointed to a sticker on the body of the machine, noting all the exercises that were described on it. He sat on the bench and started demonstrating various arm exercises.

“Anything you can do with a dumbbell you can do with this. You can create and do anything you want, or that’s right here,” he said pointing to the exercise instruction sticker again.

Unfortunately, he never asked or suggested Meg give it a try, but mainly verbalized what she could perform on it. He rattled off various exercises, including upper and lower body, seemingly assuming she would know the names of everything he mentioned.

She inquired about the price and he said it was $2,199. “That’s a little spendy,” Meg said. He then got around to asking what she was thinking budget-wise and she said she had a few thousand to work with from her tax refund.

“Depending on what you wanted, you could almost get a little of everything. The place I would start is a bench and dumbbells you know you’re going to use. Then make sure you get a good quality treadmill.”

Meg thought his reason made sense although she perhaps needed something new to help inspire and motivate her too.

“A typical set up would be something like the weights and a treadmill. That would be everything you need. Everything you could imagine and it could grow with you,” he added as he led her over to the treadmills where he asked, “Are you running or walking? Or a little bit of both?”

“A little bit of both,” she replied.

Based on what she had told him so far about her needs, he suggested she consider the Vision brand’s series of treadmills. “The nice thing about these is you can literally design your own treadmill,” he said. She looked at him questioningly and he explained that she could pick the platform and electronics console based on what she wanted feature-wise, what would fit in her budget and what she had space for in her home.

“That’s pretty cool,” she said. “Why are you suggesting Vision?” she asked, looking around at the other brands he had in the showroom.

“Because of your price range,” he said. “We’ve carried Vision since 1997 -- it’s the best entry-level solid unit you’re going to find.” He added that Runner’s World had rated it the No. 1 treadmill for the last seven years -- OK, so she knew that wasn’t totally true but it sounded good.

He continued that the store’s other brand, Landice, was the best treadmill, but it was out of her price range. However, if she wanted to put all her “eggs in one basket” on a treadmill then the Landice would be the way to go, he said, noting its lifetime warranty and that it was made in the United States. He added that it was also a Runner’s World top pick.

Meg liked the background on the models and turned to the Vision again -- since she did want to get as much bang for her buck as possible -- and asked about the differences on the consoles.

He started at the top with the premier model and worked his way down through the three consoles. He explained the premier’s features and demonstrated a few during the explanation -- built-in computer, touch screen like an ATM (she thought it was a nice touch to relate its function to something used frequently by many people), audio/video input, plug-and-play with DVD and MP3 players.

“The big feature is, it remembers who you are, what you do daily, weekly and monthly. It keeps track of all that for you, so you can actually see at the end of the month what you’ve done and how you are progressing,” he said. “They have done a very good job of packing as much into a console as possible.”

Then he explained how the other two consoles didn’t have the same features. While the deluxe model had programming and heart rate training, it didn’t keep track of your progress. And the simple model was fairly rudimentary with a start/stop, large display and no programming options.

Overall, he explained each console succinctly, naming each one and what it offered. Fortunately, he didn’t get caught up in high-tech jargon, like horsepower, motors and belts. He also compared the options to those that Meg may have encountered on treadmills in her gym. And he noted the lifetime warranty on the frame and motor and how they take care of everything.

“It’s a very sleek-looking treadmill,” he added. “Vision has done a good job of making a treadmill look like it belongs in a home as opposed to a big beastly treadmill.”

During their time together, no other customers wandered in, but the phone rang a couple times. In each instance, he apologized and excused himself, suggesting she play with the consoles to get a feel for the features. (“Nice thing is if you ever get in trouble, hit the info button and it will help you,” he told her with a chuckle.) Once each call was concluded, he always came right back to Meg to answer any questions.

Meg expressed concern about how she would get the equipment she ordered home and setup. He allayed her fears, saying the store did all the set up and delivery for a $75 flat fee, no matter the number of pieces.

He added, “After we deliver the equipment and set it up, a lot of the instructional information supplied is straightforward, but questions do pop up. I also do the commercial sales, so I’m out running around town. I’d be happy to stop by your house and walk through a training session. That way you can use everything to the fullest.”

In addition to that great offer, he also gathered together some brochures and wrote down details they had covered, highlighting the models they had discussed and included pricing. He included his business card and added that everything was in stock and with that Meg was on her way to ponder what her new home workout area would look like.

SNEWS® View: This salesman was on his game, and we don’t doubt that he’s a consistent player on the sales floor after experiencing his opening monologue of qualifying questions and subsequent product explanations as he moved around the store. The fact that he does the commercial sales too speaks a lot about the knowledge he must have. Basically so much went right. There were just a few areas that we felt could be improved.

Easy to understand – Meg walked away from her sales experience at the Fitness Shop feeling like she had learned a lot about the products that would fit her needs. He mostly didn’t talk above her head or spout techno-jargon – although he did run through a laundry list of exercise names that left her a bit confused and he had called the gym a “cable machine,” which isn’t a familiar term to most consumers. He stayed on point, relating what she had asked for to the features offered on the machines. He backed up the products with endorsements from Runner’s World – a publication that many consumers would probably be familiar with – although we knew what he said about No. 1 wasn't totally the whole story. He even noted that the treadmill manufacturers strived to make their products look appealing in a home, which we have found appeals to women shoppers more – nice touch for him to toss that in.

Product demos – The one area that seemed lacking was the lack of encouraging Meg to demo the product, like the cable machine. While the salesman hopped on the machine to show her what could be done, it goes a long way to get customers on the equipment so they can see how it feels to them and make a connection to it. Granted, Meg wasn’t wearing workout clothes or running shoes, and maybe he thought she didn’t want to get sweaty, but it’s always good to open the door so customers can decide for themselves what they want to try.

Budgets and financing – The salesman didn’t immediately ask about her budget or bring up price, but when Meg commented that something was “spendy,” it opened the door for him to ask how much money she wanted to spend. Definitely a good tactic so you don’t under or over sell, and he still didn’t hesitate to show her higher-end models in case they piqued her interest. Perhaps if the store offered financing, the pitch to up-sell could be couched something like this: “You seem interested in the cable machine, but maybe your budget is holding you back. You could finance the difference through us and ensure you have a piece that can continue to meet your needs over the years.”

Good attitude – Our mystery shopper really appreciated that the salesman not only knew his stuff but also took pride in his retail store and the products he offered. He may be a born salesman who could sell ice to Eskimos, but Meg thought he was sincere and truly believed and endorsed everything he showed her. Being positive and enthusiastic can go a long way to making the sale and building customer loyalty.

--SNEWS® Editors


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