Mystery Shopper: You want me to go someplace else to buy shoes?

It was a beautiful Friday afternoon with perfect late spring temperatures and low humidity, just the time for most folks in the region to be thinking about getting outside and reassessing their shoe needs. We ambled into Great Outdoor Provision on Park Road about 6:30 p.m. The center where it sits is rather non-descript and sprawling with parking areas surrounded by movie theaters and other could-be-anywhere urban mall stores. The Great Outdoor Provision building stood out with its charming old west façade and drew us in like bees to honey.

SNEWS® heads to Charlotte, N.C., for yet another in our popular series of Mystery Shoppers. We love to have good experiences -- and we have indeed had some super ones -- although sometimes we are disappointed, as unfortunately was the case this time. Still, 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 ( to see our entire lineup of past Mystery Shoppers.

Somehow, it's ironic that SNEWS® in May posted a Training Center story covering how to sell footwear -- not too long before we sauntered into Great Outdoor Provision in Charlotte, N.C., to -- yes, indeedy -- try to buy footwear. Trail running shoes, to be exact.

"Try" is the operative word here. Seems the selection was truly limited, and the salesman, who happened to also work at the area's well-known technical running store, Run For Your Life, thought we should wait 'til that store's sale that weekend to snap up a pair.

But we jump ahead in our, unfortunately, rather short Southeastern shopping experience.

It was a beautiful Friday afternoon with perfect late spring temperatures and low humidity, just the time for most folks in the region to be thinking about getting outside and reassessing their shoe needs. We ambled into Great Outdoor Provision on Park Road about 6:30 p.m. The center where it sits is rather non-descript and sprawling with parking areas surrounded by movie theaters and other could-be-anywhere urban mall stores. The Great Outdoor Provision building stood out with its charming old west façade and drew us in like bees to honey.

The front door hadn't even closed behind us before a man at the checkout counter looked up, smiled and asked, "How you doing tonight? Let us know if you need anything." Nice start, we thought. Little did we know that asking the shopper to let them know of needs may have been a subtle warning that it was perhaps the only way to get prompt attention.

Our shopper made a beeline to the shoe wall. Hmm, don't see a lot of trail shoes, but Vasque, The North Face, Merrell, Salomon brands are up there, so they must have something for my feet, our shopper, Veronica, thought. She spent about five minutes pacing back and forth in front of the wall, picking up and sizing up shoes, turning them over in her hands, then putting them down again. No one came to her assistance. She then wandered for a couple of minutes in larger and larger circles, picking up socks, running her hands down shirts, and even touching on the edge of the rather busy paddlesports area, before circling back to the shoes and starting the routine all over again.

A couple of minutes later (about 10 minutes after entering the store), a salesman materialized silently behind her and caused Veronica to jump with the question, "What are you looking for?"

"Well, some trail running shoes," she said, holding a Vasque Velocity in her hand.

"Which ones do you want?" he asked.

Veronica sort of furrowed her brow and wondered to herself -- if I knew which ones I wanted, I would have told you.

"What do you know about the shoes?" he added.

"I don't know which ones. I don't know anything about trail running shoes," she admitted, now feeling a bit stupid, like she'd failed a test. Note to sales -- never ask a customer what he or she does or does not know about a product. They are not there to pass or fail a personal knowledge test.

"Which ones are trail shoes? I'm a road runner, and I was thinking of getting onto trails."

Chuck (not his real name) asked her which shoes she wore now. She pointed to the Sauconys on her feet, noting they seemed to work for her. "The Omnis. I need a little support."

"Oh, yeah, that's a stability shoe," Chuck noted. He added that the ones she just had in her hand, the Vasque Velocity, was also a stability shoe and would be worth a look since it'd compare to the Saucony in feel.

"What size do you wear?" he inquired. She said it was somewhere around an 8.5 or a 9, kind of depending on the shoe and how her orthotic also fit in it. She waited expectantly for Chuck to confirm her size with a Brannock Device, but no such luck. He instead disappeared into the backroom for a moment and re-emerged with both sizes, pulled one 8.5 out of the box and handed it to her, then sat back while she put in her orthotic, fiddled with the laces and slipped on the shoes.

"Oh," she said, "this seems a little short."

Without testing them himself, Chuck then pulled out the 9s and offered them to her to try on.

"Oh," she said, feeling a little bit like Goldilocks, "these are really too big."

Chuck just looked at her and did nothing to confirm the fit was either too big or too small.

"Is that it?" she asked gesturing to the wall of shoes. "None of these others that you have here will work?"

He paused, and then retreated into the backroom, coming back out with The North Face Radial, also in both sizes. The same routine of handing-off and trying-on happened. Wondering if he would help her at all with fit, instead of just kicking back (he must be really tired, she thought), she hemmed and hawed about the length and kept saying she wasn't sure about the fit. Finally, taking the not-so-subtle hint, he made the great effort to lean forward and put his finger on her toe.

"Yes," he said as he sat back again, confirming they seemed a bit short.

"That's it?" she asked again. Frustrated that her choice was limited to two shoes, it seemed, neither of which apparently fit, she asked what the difference was between a trail runner and a road runner to see if Chuck could at least handle that part of the sale. He briefly went over the tread, the composition of the sole, the stickiness of the sole, its durability and the upper's durability. He also pointed to the Vasque Velocity and noted it was highly water resistant too. Well, for a brief summary, he hit all the high points pretty well, she thought.

Still, Great Outdoor Provision seemed to have a dearth in trail shoes and Veronica started hemming and hawing a bit again, giving Chuck every opportunity to suggest something, anything as an alternative. He did, but not exactly what the company would have appreciated, we're sure.

"Honestly, the running shoe companies make the best trail shoes," he noted, leaning forward and lowering his voice in a slightly conspiratorial manner. "I mean, they know running."

"Oh really?" Veronica asked, leaving the door open just far enough for him to step in with both feet. "Like Saucony?"

"No, I'd suggest Brooks," he said, noting the Adrenaline as a model to look for. He also told her to try New Balance (noting the 907), but told her to avoid Nike. He shared that he still worked part-time at one Run For Your Life store, albeit a small one that didn't have much in trail shoes ("People ask for them and we bring them in, then we don't sell them"), and suggested she try looking either at the other larger branch ("I think they're having a sale this weekend."), or the New Balance outlet store nearby.

The shopping experience after about 25 minutes had hit a dead end. The salesman, however, went on to share that there just weren't "a lot of trail runners here since there aren't a lot of trails close by."

Odd, Veronica thought, she had driven past a really large park called Mecklenburg where she had been told there were some nice trails, albeit not really mountainous or highly technical, and where folks also mountain biked. That month's edition of the area's endurance sports magazine also had a column about trail running. The writer noted they hit the trails "after a few minutes' drive," then went on to wax poetically about all the trail and ultra runners he'd met and all the miles he had since logged on dirt around the area, including Mecklenburg, other nearby parks and recreational trails near or along local creeks.

Seemed Chuck really didn't want to sell shoes anyway, so Veronica shrugged and bid adieu and headed back out into the beautiful evening to look elsewhere.

SNEWS® View: Knowing Great Outdoor Provision's overall reputation as we do, and having had superb shopping experiences in the past as actual customers (yes, we do sometimes buy things at retail as shocking as that might sound), we are somewhat stunned and quite disappointed in this particular experience. Of course, as we always say, every mystery shopping experience will be different, even one hour to the next or one day to the next, depending on moods and the salesperson. Whatever the reason was this time, our shopping experience was certainly not great. We'd recommend the store staff immediately click here to study our How To Sell Footwear article in the SNEWS® Training Center for more on just the basics of selling footwear well -- you know, like using a Brannock Device for one?

Certainly, the salesperson did explain in an easily understandable way the features of trail shoes and he did fetch her shoes to try on. But all of it seemed like a huge effort --certainly nothing special about the service, which is death to any store that considers itself specialty. In addition, we have to wonder why he was working in an outdoor store at all since he apparently didn't seem to believe in the outdoor brands he was selling and appeared more interested in getting the customer into shoes the store didn’t sell.

In short, to improve this experience, the salesperson should have at a minimum:
1. Offered to correctly size Veronica's feet using a Brannock Device.
2. Helped Veronica to put on each of her shoes and tested the initial fit of each.
3. Should have suggested Veronica take a jog and walk around the store to better feel the fit of each shoe.
4. Should have asked for more information about her orthotics and why she wore them.
5. Should have noted her socks and asked her if those were the type she normally wore as that would have affected the shoe's fit.
6. Might have suggested a different footbed or an additional one for help with the fit.


Mystery Shopper: Keeping pace in Idaho

We were starting to get a bit disheartened with our string of so-so mystery shopping experiences of late, but Advantage Fitness in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, restored our faith. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Advantage! Remember, as we always like to point out each time: Our goal more

Mystery Shopper: Killed by a cell phone

What makes specialty retail so special? It is a question we have been asking ourselves, somewhat rhetorically, in the last year as the outdoor retail industry has become increasingly vocal about various issues including uncontrolled distribution, over production, sinking margins, more

Mystery Shopper: Have wheelchair, will travel

This is the second installment of our continuing and occasional series of stories about our mystery shopping experiences at outdoor stores. Our intent in running these stories is and will always be as an educational tool. Our goal is never to call onto the carpet any one store or more