Mystery Shopper: Trying to find a light in Chicago harder than imagined

Runners from around the globe could still be seen all over the Chicago area even days after the annual October marathon in a city that has a runner-friendly reputation and a large runner population. Since Daylight Savings Time was around the corner, we decided it was time to send our operative into a store to look for illumination ideas that would enable one to see during pre-dawn and after-work runs, as well, of course, to be seen for safety.

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, 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.

Runners from around the globe could still be seen all over the Chicago area even days after the annual October marathon in a city that has a runner-friendly reputation and a large runner population. Since Daylight Savings Time was around the corner, we decided it was time to send our operative into a store to look for illumination ideas that would enable one to see during pre-dawn and after-work runs, as well, of course, to be seen for safety.

Uncle Dan’s in Lincoln Park wasn’t far from our shopper’s destination, so she decided to pop in to see what the folks there could suggest. We’d heard great things about the store from SNEWS readers and friends, so we felt optimistic that Uncle Dan’s would serve up a quality shopping experience.

On the way to the store from the train, our operative wandered past DePaul University and saw a few runners heading toward the lakefront recreation path. It was late afternoon on a chilly, breezy, unseasonably cool day when our shopper -- we’ll call her Tilly -- walked past cheap, quick-food palaces offering Thai, Mexican and Asian fare, past an empty storefront or two, and past rows of free entertainment newspaper racks to the front door of Uncle Dan’s in the heart of an obviously student-centric quarter.

Once she was blown in the door, she noted a community bulletin board and shelves and racks of brochures about community services, business and activities, as well as complimentary magazines and newsletters. She liked the warm, neighborhood feel and promised herself she’d take a look on the way out. First, to business: Tilly walked across the comfortably worn wood floor as she ventured past the front counter of the smallish store. Not really knowing where lights and things would be -- and unsure what she was really looking for -- she glanced around at neatly arranged rounds of clothing, slat walls with gear and hats, and other equipment in the back.

Tilly wasn’t in the store more than 10 seconds before she was greeted by a tall, friendly guy: “Can I help you find something?” he asked.

“Hmm… lights,…” she replied, hesitating about what to ask about. The sales guy sort of furrowed a brow and tipped his head quizzically. “For running,” she explained.

He tried to figure out what our unsure shopper wanted and asked if she meant reflective strips so cars could see her. “Yes,” she said, “of course that too, but also so I can see when I have to run after work.”

“Like headlamps?” he asked. That stumped her: “I don’t know,” she answered, again hestitating…. He likely figured they’d start there because he guided her around an island to a short wall of headlamps from Petzl and Princeton Tec in clamshells and other packaging with a few samples open to play with on top of the display.

“Oh,” she said, fingering a headlamp gingerly. “Would this work?”

“Well, you’d have to crank it way down on your head,” he said, explaining that way it wouldn’t bounce and jostle around too much while running.

He pointed to Princeton Tec's Scout and noted it was the lightest and cheapest one. He pointed out a few other headlamps, showed her the buttons and how to work them, and mentioned a few features that went way over Tilly’s understanding of headlamps.

“Do runners use these?” she asked, noting she didn’t really know since she was just starting to run more and this was her first winter at it.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“So you’ve never sold them to a runner?” she asked. “What do runners use then?”

The sales guy said he’d seen walkers carrying flashlights -- he demonstrated an arm swing as if he were carrying one -- but said he thought that would be hard if you were running. Tilly told him she’d tried carrying a flashlight, but it was awkward. He also pointed to the small Impulse light by Princeton Tec, still in a clamshell, and mentioned how it can clip on your clothing or hat. She asked how, but he wasn’t sure and couldn’t explain it, so Tilly read the back and realized it wouldn’t work for running at all -- at least from what she could tell by reading.

Although making an attempt, Tilly’s sales guy didn’t seem to have any understanding of the needs of a runner. So Tilly went back to the Princeton Tec Scout and handled it, somewhat unsure about it. He suggested she try it on and pointed to a mirror across the store, and then said he’d see if another salesperson knew what runners use. He also invited her to jog up and down the aisle if she wanted a better feel for how it fit. While she was at the mirror, he ended up in a short conversation with another clerk, and Tilly checked out the headlamp but fumbled to find the buttons while wearing it. Our sales guy, meanwhile, had tracked down a woman who said she didn’t know if runners used it, had bought it, or what they’d asked for. She then turned to go about her business.

He also pointed out the Princeton Tec Fuel, which is larger, but led Tilly back to the Scout, noting it was the least expensive. The Fuel wouldn’t turn on for either of them anyway and the sales guy simply shrugged his shoulders and said the batteries must be dead, not offering to replace them. Tilly found it odd he kept focusing on the cheapest headlamp since she never mentioned her need for cheap -- maybe it’s because so many students likely come into the shop? Or if it didn't work out well for what she wanted, she wouldn't be out that much money? Frankly, all Tilly wanted was a light that would work for her while running and, not having worn headlamps, she wasn't sure how well they would work -- and neither was anyone in the shop apparently.

Not feeling too satisfied or sure, and wishing she could somehow try out various lights, she realized her sales guy had come to the end of his line.

“Well, OK, then I guess I’ll have to go ask around some more,” Tilly said, and started to edge toward the door after only a nine-minute shopping attempt. He offered a little wave and went back to talking to another clerk.

On the way out, Tilly stopped at the racks and shelves and found not only the official Chicago Marathon program, but several area running magazines and brochures for races and training programs. Odd that with all this running stuff, the store didn't know more about a simple need such as a light for running in the dark.

SNEWS® View: Here it was only days after the internationally known marathon in a store with more than a token offering of news and magazines on running. We would hope, given the urban location as well, that clerks would be more confident in helping someone pick the best products to see and be seen for running in the dark or dusk -- even if they weren't runners themselves. All the attempts at showing lights seemed a bit half-hearted, actually. The sales guy went through the motions and was nice enough, but he never offered to find batteries or even offered to let her step into a closet or bathroom to really experience the illumination. With a more positive attitude -- and a little more knowledge about runners’ needs -- they could have sold a reflective vest or other reflective materials and a headlamp. But as it was, Tilly never felt as if the help she got was informed enough to allow her to be confident in buying what they showed. Sure, the store was merchandised very nicely. And our operative was greeted well seconds after walking into the store -- all pluses, for sure. And there was no doubt her sales guy (we never did get his name) was very nice. But, clean, well-merchandised stores and prompt greetings by staff won’t close a sale if the product information and knowledge is not there to back it all up. Granted, Uncle Dan's isn't a running store, but the staff needs to be prepared for any peripherary sport needs that pop up especially in a town that so clearly caters to a running crowd. Our shopper's assignment was to represent a true newbie who just didn't know what she wanted and was looking to the store for assistance -- and it's important that retailers be prepared to do some hand-holding and really identify what those types of customers want to make the right sale. That includes sounding confident in the information you impart so the customer feels secure in making a decision. Nestled in a student neighborhood with people coming and going from the lakefront path, this has to be an opportunity missed to not be able to tap into at least part of the running market there.

--SNEWS® Editors


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