While our Mystery Shoppers are usually applying their powers of observation to retail sales, this spring, two of our agents -- code named Cindy and Jake -- set their sights on a different pursuit -- birding. Of course, birding requires more than a keen eye; you also need a good pair of binoculars. One day this summer, our Mystery Shopping duo decided to visit Nat's Outdoor Sports in Bowling Green, Ky., to browse the store's binocular offerings and see how well the shop was serving the local nature-observation crowd.
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 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 (www.snewsnet.com/salestools) to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.
At 1:50 p.m. on a Sunday, Cindy and Jake drove into the parking lot of Nat's Outdoor Sports, a stand-alone brick building just off a busy highway in Bowling Green, Ky. As they walked through the front doors they looked up and saw a high ceiling and exposed wooden beams, which gave the store a cozy, rustic feel. The lighting scheme was muted -- not too dark and not too bright, allowing our shoppers to easily make out an abundance of casual sportswear filling the front of the shop, as well as a healthy collection of bikes toward the rear.
The 360-degree cash-wrap counter with glass display cases stood in the front and center of the store, and our agents stood before the counter examining the binoculars, which sat in the glass case on the far right of the counter. To the left of the binoculars were GPS units and heart rate monitors. They thought it was a pretty good mix of products, including small- and medium-sized binoculars from Nikon, Swarovski, Carson, Leica and Kahles, ranging from $79 to $999.
As they stood at the counter, three employees shuffled around behind it, not looking especially busy, and not acknowledging Cindy or Jake. After three or four minutes, an employee in his twenties, who was standing at the opposite side of the counter, asked if our shoppers needed any help.
"Yes, we'd like to look at some binoculars," said Cindy.
The salesperson, who was not wearing a nametag, walked over to our Mystery Shoppers and asked if they knew what they were looking for.
"Well, we're looking for something for watching birds," said Cindy, adding that she was not sure what she should get. She mentioned that she had previously borrowed a pair from a friend, but they hadn't worked very well.
At this point, our agents expected the salesperson to ask a few questions: How will you be using them, for backpacking or day outings? Do you need something compact? Will you use them for several hours a day or for short periods of time? Anything to qualify the customer.
Cindy had mentioned that she didn't like the binoculars she had borrowed. Perhaps the salesperson could have played off this and asked what it was she didn't like.
Instead, the salesperson asked, "How much are you looking to spend? I've got these Nikon ones for $80." He reached beneath the counter and placed the Nikon Sportstar binocular on the counter.
You could argue that it's not a bad idea to ask about price at some point while selling binoculars, as you're dealing with a product category with a wide price range. But, it's not usually a good idea to start with price when a customer is not familiar with the product and does not know which features are important. Once they know which features and benefits are most important for their needs, they can narrow down choices by considering price.
"I guess we need to first figure out what we need before we know what we'll spend," said our male operative, code name Jake.
This would have been a prime opportunity for the salesperson to go over a few of the things that differentiate the higher-end binoculars from those with lower price points. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, and our Mystery Shoppers were starting to understand that this salesperson had very little knowledge of what he was trying to sell.
Cindy then asked, "Can you tell us what are some of the most popular ones?"
"These Nikon ones are some of the best-selling ones," the salesperson replied, referring to the Sportstar. However, he didn't add why they were so popular.
Sensing that they were dealing with someone who did not know the deeper details of binoculars, our Mystery Shoppers decided to ask about some basics, such as field of view.
Our agents asked the salesperson to retrieve several different binoculars from the case, and they then began looking though each, training the binoculars on the parking lot, which was visible through the front door.
"Why is it that with some of these the view is larger than others?" Cindy asked. "You know what I mean? The circle I'm seeing is bigger for some."
But the salesperson didn't have an answer. He did begin to gaze through some of the binoculars, but didn't provide any further information about the varying fields of view. He did take notice that our agents were peering into the parking lot and suggested that they look at a Brunton binocular viewing poster tacked to the rafters of the shop ceiling. But the white poster was placed in a pretty dark spot, and it was difficult for our agents to crane their necks upward and look at it. The store might want to consider another spot for the poster.
Jake thought he'd try one more time to see if he could get the salesperson to offer something useful and asked why some of the binoculars were more expensive.
"It's really just the gases that they put in them," replied the salesperson, without offering further explanation.
At this point, Jake was biting his lip. Sure, manufacturers put nitrogen or argon gas in binoculars to keep out air and moisture and prevent fogging, but so much more determines price. What about the different types of prisms, the quality of lenses and lens coatings?
Our Mystery Shoppers could certainly sympathize with a salesperson that was tasked with selling product unfamiliar to him, but it just wasn't appropriate to present such incomplete information. Knowing that he was struggling, the salesperson should have sought another employee who knew more, and the store should have had at least one person on-hand who knew the basics if the store was going to sell these products.
"What about these numbers here?" asked Cindy, pointing at the magnification and objective lens numbers printed on the body of one of the binoculars. "Is that something important?"
The salesperson didn't answer directly, but just looked more confused.
"One thing we're planning to do is backpack with them," said Jake. "Are some binoculars more waterproof than the others?"
"No, not really," the salesperson said, once again offering inaccurate info.
"I'm sorry I don't know more about this," the salesperson said apologetically. "If you asked me about anything else in the store, I could tell you all about it. If you need to know how to balance out (climbing) anchors, I could tell you exactly. I'm actually kind of embarrassed."
It was a truly awkward moment. The guy was trying to be nice, and kept a pleasant demeanor, but our agents could tell this was painful for him. Having been in the store only 15 minutes, our shoppers determined it was time to put everyone out of their misery. They asked the salesperson to write down the names and prices of various models, and he obliged.
Extremely disappointed with what had transpired, our agents made a quick exit, thankful that they still had the afternoon to enjoy some birding and lift their spirits.
SNEWS View: Optics can be difficult to sell due to their complex nature, but there are a few guidelines that any salesperson can use to pair a customer with the appropriate product. We won't go into that now, as this is not a How to Sell Optics article, but it was clear that this employee had never been schooled on the products. Of course, not every employee can know the details of every type of gear, but if a person is placed behind the counter and is expected to sell something, he should at least be given some education or other tools to make this possible. Also, another problem with this sale was that the salesperson made no attempt to pull in a colleague who might know more. There were at least three other employees in the store at the time, and with that many people working, there should have been at least one person who had attended a clinic on binoculars.
We'd suggest the store put together a one-page cheat sheet that would at least guide a salesperson through the basics. We don't expect most employees to know the differences between porro prisms and roof prisms, but we do expect someone to offer guidance on the most basic elements, such as the level of magnification recommended for a birding binocular.
In theory, the one thing that sets a specialty store apart from other sellers is the knowledge of its employees. And a lack of knowledge is precisely the thing that doomed this potential sale.