Mystery Shopper: Sucking the "special" out of "specialty"

You've heard of The Haggler, right? That customer who wants to leg wrestle with you over every last dollar of a sale price until the equipment sale resembles a scene at a used car lot. That's what we had planned, since we know specialty stores experience this, so we could see how the salesperson dealt with it. To our surprise, our Mystery Shopper stumbled onto a shopping experience so bad that he didn't need to haggle to challenge the salesperson. Nope, this shopping experience store needed no help in sucking the "special" right out of "specialty."
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Since we were visiting the land of palm trees, winter warmth and New York escapees, we decided to drop into Precision Fitness Equipment in Altamonte Springs, Fla., for what we hoped would be another of our great shopping experiences. Unfortunately, that was not the case, but more on that below. As always, remember, 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. In cases like this one, we're not sure what the learning is, except that we need to remember that SPECIALTY means you have to act special, treat customers special, and have a really good and SPECIAL handle on product and service. Of course, each and every shopping experience can be widely different, even at any one store or with any one person, so this is certainly just a microcosm of what Precision has to offer. Don't forget to visit our Training Center (www.snewsnet.com/trainingcenter) to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.

You've heard of The Haggler, right? That customer who wants to leg wrestle with you over every last dollar of a sale price until the equipment sale resembles a scene at a used car lot. That's what we had planned, since we know specialty stores experience this, so we could see how the salesperson dealt with it. To our surprise, our Mystery Shopper stumbled onto a shopping experience so bad that he didn't need to haggle to challenge the salesperson. Nope, this shopping experience store needed no help in sucking the "special" right out of "specialty."

We dispatched our Mystery Shopper, code name Bob, to Altamonte Springs, Fla. (north of Orlando), where he found a Precision Fitness store in a strip mall that was showing its age. At 1:10 p.m., Bob approached the store, which had blue and white awnings and a Bowflex sign on the front window. Crossing the parking lot, Bob saw something that he really did not like: The main sales "cash-wrap" counter was just inside the door on the right, and our Mystery Shopper could see it through the front glass wall. He could see the salesman at the desk who was watching our agent as he approached. Folks, that's just creepy. You shouldn't place the desk at the front because people don't want to feel like they're being watched. It's as if the salespeople are perched at the counter, waiting like hungry mountain lions or like Snoopy when he pretended to be a vulture, slit-eyed observing the approaching prey, preparing to pounce. Cheap furniture stores do this, but specialty retail stores shouldn't. Period.

Trying to push his disappointment aside of this layout and not taint his experience, Bob walked into the store, which was relatively small and square with lighting, merchandising and carpet so uninspiring that our Mystery Shopper couldn't even recall after he left what it looked like. Most of the equipment in the dull room was from Nautilus, with elliptical machines on the left, exercise bikes down the middle and a handful of strength machines lining the back wall. Not a surprise since one of the names Precision goes by is Nautilus of Florida.

Bob walked to the front desk, but the dark-haired salesman was actually not waiting to pounce. No, in fact, he was leaning back in a chair with his hands behind his head, and it appeared that if our Mystery Shopper had not entered, a nap may have been imminent. Or maybe we interrupted one. Still, Bob was hopeful the salesperson would come to life and turn this mystery shopping adventure into a mostly positive experience.

"Hey, can I help you out?" the salesman asked.

"Yes, I'm looking for something mainly for lifting weights," our Mystery Shopper replied.

The salesman rose from his chair and walked to the back of the room where several strength machines sat against the wall, including two Bowflex units, a Nautilus NS 200 and a Nautilus NS 300.

"I can get you into this machine for a good price," the salesman said as he pointed to the NS 200. He flipped over the price tag, which said $1,499, but added that the store would knock off 20 percent. "We've sold these like crazy," he said. "This floor model is the last one we've got. You can get a really good workout on this machine."

See? No need to haggle. The sales guy took it straight to price. Still, Bob hoped for the best and Bob expected the salesman to demonstrate a few of the machine's features, since, of course, this was the ideal time for that, as well as for questions about Bob's current routine, goals, space requirements and other things one would usually ask to qualify a customer. But, noooooo, the two just stood there, with no attempt for small talk or qualifying by the salesman. Finally, the salesman did say that the machine had 240 pounds of weight on it, and he said there was no fee for putting it together because it was a floor model. And it was $200 for delivery. Unfortunately, he did not demonstrate any features. He did not invite Bob to get on the machine and try it. And he still didn't ask our agent anything about his weight-lifting history, experience, possible injuries, family or preferences.

With a few random facts swirling in his head, our Mystery Shopper abandoned the idea of playing the haggler role, because this was turning out to be a situation that didn't need a challenge. After just a couple of minutes, it was already pretty challenged.

But Bob was willing to offer the place a second chance, so he asked how the NS 300 differed from the NS 200. The salesman pointed to the NS 300 and noted that a person could do butterfly presses on it. "But you pay an extra $500 for that," he said, pretty unenthusiastically, and then fell silent. Well, Bob thought, that didn't go anywhere.

Bob motioned to the Bowflex Xtreme on the left and asked the salesman to explain the differences between it and the Nautilus machines. But he offered nothing except a quick reply that the Bowflex had less weight on it. Wow, that's all? What about the fact that they have completely different technologies with a totally different feel? And still no invite to try anything out.

Bob tried to bring up the subject of the different action of the two machines, but the salesman didn't really respond, except to say that he was "old school" and preferred to lift "real weights." Ironically, there didn't appear to be many, if any, "real weights" in the store, which we assume meant iron and plates.

Bob was almost at a loss for words, so to buy some time and figure out his next move, he asked the salesman to once again review the cost of the NS 200. After giving Bob the delivery cost, the salesman added that, these days, just moving the machines was his exercise: "I don't even work out anymore."

Stunned silence on Bob's part.

"So, you don't even work out now?" Bob asked. "No," said the man -- not sarcastically, not with a chuckle, but totally matter-of-fact.

Naturally, Bob paused for a moment to retrieve his jaw from the floor. In all his days of shopping undercover, he'd never heard a fitness retail staff member actually proclaim that he didn't work out anymore. The guy doesn't even work out and he's dogging strength machines? And machines that aren't even "real weights," per his own words? None of this left Bob with a lot of confidence.

So far, our shopper had been in the store only about 10 minutes -- most of our shoppers can take at least 20 and often 30 or 40 minutes -- but he was so way beyond ready to leave. After a brief mention of financing options on the Nautilus machine, Bob said thanks, goodbye and walked away as fast as he could.

SNEWS® View: This ranks up there among some of the most depressing Mystery Shopping excursions ever by any of our agents. From the off-putting sales counter near the door, to the drab interior to the complete lack of sales technique to the astonishing comment, "I don't even work out anymore." This was almost a Perfect Storm of things that can wreck specialty fitness retail. It is our fervent hope that our experience with this salesperson was an anomaly and, normally, the store features energetic, enthusiastic sales support that understands even a dull and dreary store appearance can be brightened up with quality sales staff and service.

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