Mystery Shopper: Travel Country Outdoors gives us reason to smile

We wondered how retailers are juggling all the clothing choices, and how well they're selling relatively new concepts like soft shells. To find out, we dispatched one of our Mystery Shoppers to search for a skiing/snowboarding jacket in -- where else? -- Florida. Say what? Florida? Hey, in case you hadn't heard, the Sunshine State has one of the biggest ski clubs in the country. And Travel Country Outdoors near Orlando has a reputation for being one of the better outdoor specialty stores in the state.
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SNEWS® heads to Florida for yet another in our popular Mystery Shopping series. 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.

Choosing a wardrobe for the slopes is not so simple these days. We've moved beyond the traditional layering system, and we can choose from all manner of soft shells --waterproof, insulated, windproof -- plus soft shell/hard shell hybrids, and a wide variety of insulated pieces. Complicating the matter somewhat is the knowledge that waterproof/breathable technology continues to evolve as Gore-Tex alternatives succeed in the market.

We wondered how retailers are juggling all the clothing choices, and how well they're selling relatively new concepts like soft shells. To find out, we dispatched one of our Mystery Shoppers to search for a skiing/snowboarding jacket in -- where else? -- Florida. Say what? Florida? Hey, in case you hadn't heard, the Sunshine State has one of the biggest ski clubs in the country. And Travel Country Outdoors near Orlando has a reputation for being one of the better outdoor specialty stores in the state.

Around 11:45 a.m. on a Saturday, our Mystery Shopper with the code name Grits pulled up to the tan Travel Country building, which was easy to identify thanks to a large sign at the side of the road. (We love retailers who invest in good signage.) On the sign, a marquee message declared that the store was having a closeout sale on boats, and a large, covered front porch with wood flooring held racks and racks of kayaks.

The place was jumping, as lots of folks were busy loading boats they had purchased, or browsing the racks for deals. Grits strolled through the porch, passed through two glass doors and entered the main retail store, which was a bright, warm space packed with racks of sportswear and technical clothing from the likes of Mountain Hardwear, Patagonia and Arc'Teryx.

Grits had browsed for maybe two minutes when a tall young man behind the counter said confidently, "Hello, sir, can I help you?" Grits turned toward the blonde-haired salesman who wore shorts and a white T-shirt. "Yeah, I'm looking for a jacket," Grits replied. "I'm going on a trip with some buddies to Colorado for skiing and snowboarding, and I'm not sure if the jacket I have is good enough for it."

"Are you just looking for the jacket, or do you need other clothing, too?" the salesman asked. (Though the salesman did not wear a nametag, our Mystery Shopper later learned his name was Tyson.) Of course, Grits was pleased that Tyson had asked about other clothes, and considering the big picture approach. Why just sell a jacket if you have the opportunity to completely outfit someone for a trip?

"Well, I might need some other stuff," Grits said, hoping to see what Tyson would do with the opportunity for add-on sales.

"The best thing to do is use a layering system," Tyson said. "Are you familiar with layering?" Very good move -- first determine the customer's level of knowledge, starting with the basics.

"Well, sort of," Grits replied.

"You'll have a base layer that's going to be wool or a synthetic material," Tyson explained as he motioned to a display of Patagonia base layers on a raised area to the right of the counter. Taking a piece of Patagonia underwear from the display, he explained that the base layer would wick moisture and help keep him warm. "Do you have something like this?" Tyson asked, and Grits replied that he did have some long underwear. Our Mystery Man hoped that the salesman would double check to make sure it wasn't long cotton underwear (we're always amazed at how many people use it), but Tyson moved on to the mid layer.

"Next, I would wear a piece of fleece," Tyson said. "Do you have something like that?"

"Yeah, I do have some fleece," Grits replied.

"Is it pretty thick?" Tyson asked. "How warm is it?"

Hey, this guy's thorough, our Mystery Shopper thought. "Well, it's pretty warm," he replied. "Not too thin, but air does go through it." At this point, Grits was wondering if the salesman would introduce some of the latest mid layers with newer fabrications, but he didn't take that direction. "That's no problem," said Tyson. "That will help breathability."

So far, our Mystery Shopper thought the salesperson was doing a pretty good job, being methodical and asking good questions. Granted, Tyson could have taken this opportunity to point out the variety of garments that could serve as a thermal layer or an outer layer in drier conditions. But he chose, instead, to assume that the customer could get by with clothes he already owned, which is not necessarily the wrong approach. After all, jackets are expensive, and it's reasonable to think a person may not have the budget to buy more. It really comes down to a philosophy of how much you want salespeople to promote newer concepts.

Tyson continued, explaining that a shell jacket would be the next layer to protect from water and wind. And, once again, he asked Grits if this was all making sense.

"Do you have a price range you're looking at?" the salesman asked, and Grits replied that he was willing to look at a full range of prices.

"Well, I can show you what I think is the best stuff, and we can start there and see what you think," said Tyson. Well, why not? If the customer says he's open-minded, go for it.

The two walked over to a rack of Arc'Teryx Stingray jackets, and Tyson said, "This is Arc'Teryx, and this is part of their Descent collection…pretty much anything in the Descent collection is good for skiing or boarding. This is pretty much the top of the line."

He then showed Grits several features on the jacket and mentioned how the company's manufacturing techniques were exceptional and that the jackets were very durable. Grits asked about the price, and while he didn't flinch at the $499 tag, he did say that it was higher than he expected. "Well, like I said, this is the best," Tyson said, as he talked about the Gore-Tex membrane and other aspects that made it top-notch. He was obviously a real fan of the brand and continued to promote that product. "Well, I could probably afford it," Grits said. But it was time to see what else he knew.

"Just so I can see what else you have, what would be the next thing after this that you'd recommend?" our Mystery Shopper asked.

Tyson replied that there were other jackets that didn't have Gore-Tex, and he took Grits to a nearby rack and pulled out a Mountain Hardwear jacket with Conduit. Tyson did a good job explaining how manufacturers have their own waterproof/breathable technologies that differ from Gore-Tex, and how the alternatives are much less expensive. When Grits asked whether Conduit or Gore-Tex performed better, Tyson said, "I've been using Gore-Tex for years, and in my opinion, it's the best." And, hey, that's why people walk into a specialty store -- for educated opinions.

Grits turned to another rack holding a Mountain Hardwear Exposure II jacket and asked about the difference between it and Arc'Teryx.

"The Arc'Teryx jacket, over a long period of time, will be the most durable," the salesman said. "Nothing against Mountain Hardwear, and this is a good jacket. But I'm just telling you the difference between the best and this step down."

Grits appreciated this guy's honesty, and he had a sense that he was an experienced outdoors person who had a good grasp of gear. So it was time to kick it up a notch and get into something more complex. "One of my friends was talking about getting something called a soft shell," said Grits. "Can you tell me what that's all about?"

"Yeah, there are people who like those," the salesman replied as he moved to a Mountain Hardwear soft shell jacket. "Basically, this is something to wear instead of a regular shell," said Tyson, adding that they were usually water-resistant, with some being more waterproof, and some being more breathable. But then things got a little confusing.

When Grits said he still wasn't clear on why a person would want a soft shell, Tyson never clearly defined the benefits. Essentially, he didn't effectively convey that a soft shell offered the ability to be more comfortable (often in moderate conditions) because it is more flexible and often more breathable than traditional "hard" shells. Grits perceived that Tyson was trying to explain this (and he probably knew what he was talking about), but he just didn't have it boiled down to an easily understandable sales pitch. The salesman went on to explain that soft shells often had features like fleece backers to keep the wearer warm, but Grits suspected that, at this point, a customer would be too confused to pay much attention to such details.

The salesman must have sensed Grits' confusion because he turned the conversation once again back to the Arc'Teryx rack and asked how often Grits would be using the jacket. "Well, I plan to go on a couple of trips every year," he replied.

"I'd recommend the Arc'Teryx jacket, and look at it as an investment because it really will hold up over a long period of time," Tyson said.

Tyson pointed out more details of the Stingray, such as the welding on the jacket. He tried to give some detail on welding, noting it would be stronger than stitching, which was not really correct. He should have highlighted that welding allows for a lighter, waterproof garment made from less material, but strength is not really a selling point. He could have also pointed out that welding was an example of the advanced manufacturing techniques that contribute to the price of the jacket.

He asked Grits to try one on -- good move. It's always smart to get the customer's hands on the merchandise. Tyson then mentioned that he thought the jacket was on sale, and said that if Grits wanted a different color he could try to get it.

Our Mystery Shopper felt like he had a good assessment of the salesman's abilities, so he said that he liked the Stingray but wanted to make sure he had the extra money he'd need for it. Tyson asked when our Mystery Shopper would be departing for his trip to make sure he would have adequate time to obtain the Stingray in alternative colors if necessary.

Tyson then told Grits the days he worked, and encouraged him to visit or call if he had any questions. He wrote his name on a business card and handed it to Grits, and then they shook hands. Grits soon departed, walking out across the porch and into the warm Florida sun.

SNEWS View: Several retailers have told us that soft shells have sometimes proved a difficult sale, and we saw that born out in this Mystery Shopper excursion. Tyson was a motivated and knowledgeable salesperson with a good grasp of clothing technology, but the sale hit a bumpy spot when he tried to explain soft shells. Was this due to a lack of sales training? Perhaps. The category certainly demands great attention from sales trainers because manufacturers have not adequately explained soft shells.

Tyson, and we suspect, many other retail staff could make good use of our SNEWS® How to Sell guide for soft shells. Click here to read.

We also suspect that welding technology has caused some confusion, and we wonder whether retail salespeople really know its true function and benefits. Despite these couple of issues, our Mystery Shopper felt good about several aspects of the sale:

1. Tyson quickly qualified the customer's knowledge level concerning layering and helped educate the customer to make an informed decision.

2. As Tyson was conveying information, he paused periodically to make sure that the customer understood what he was saying. By constantly asking questions, a salesperson not only gains more information to match the person with the right product, but also develops a rapport with the customer and keeps the sale rolling in a positive direction.

3. Brands should work to make retail staff members "champions" of their brands, and Tyson was certainly an Arc'Teryx champion. His enthusiasm for the company's products came across as confidence, and customers naturally feel more comfortable if the product has a ringing endorsement.

4. The salesperson seemed engaged in the sales up to the very end. We can't tell you how many times we've seen a sale fall flat because the salesperson, for one reason or another, just lost his or her enthusiasm.

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