The Comparison Shopper

Managing editor’s note–Our female operative posed as a neophyte snowboarder and visited three Rocky Mountain region snowboard shops: a specialty store, a multi-sport store, and a chain store. Her goal was to assess the level of service and knowledge of the sales staffs.

Her cover was to tell the salesperson she had gone riding a few times last year, rented equipment, and this year wanted to buy a setup of her own.

Most importantly, she had no idea what she was looking for, but had money to spend. What would the salespeople offer her? Would they remember add-on sales? Did they even know what they were talking about?

The results may frighten some of you. They may shock those of you who thought all that education and emphasis on clinics has paid off. The names and places have been changed to protect the guilty, but the stories are all true.

Inspiration for this article came from the Mystery Shopper series appearing in Outdoor Retailer magazine.

Insertion Point One: A Snowboard Specialty Store

My first stop was a small suburban snow/skate specialty shop located in a strip mall. It was 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday, so I had the store to myself. I was inside approximately 30 seconds before “Peter” (not his real name) greeted me and asked if there was anything he could help me with. I gave him my spiel and we were off.

He immediately launched into an explanation about how to find the right size board and went from there straight into an explanation of twin-tip versus directional.

Hold up. Number one, we were standing in the middle of the outerwear section. Number two–way too much, way too fast for someone who’s only ridden a few times.

Fortunately, he read my expression pretty quickly and suggested we go look at some boards, so he could show me what he was talking about. This was better. The board section was in the back corner of the store, where Lib Tech, Salomon, Unity, and Division 23 boards were on racks along the wall facing out. A fixture in the center of the floor displayed B-Line boards.

Bindings were displayed high on the wall, which made it difficult to see how they worked. I didn’t see any boots (I later found out they were in a different part of the store), but accessories were mixed in fairly well along the walls.

Peter asked me what kind of riding I wanted to do, and I told him all-mountain. We continued our discussion of twin-tip versus directional, and he suggested I go with a directional board. He handed me a 146 cm B-Line women’s model–which is the size I typically ride. However, I was confused. Wasn’t this board a twin tip?

He explained that the smallest directional B-Line would be too long for me. Then he explained how to mount my bindings on the twin if I wanted to ride in powder.

Next we looked at the Lib Tech Acme 145 cm (retailing for $389.95), the Division 23 Mainline 149 cm ($349.95), as well as the Profile 150 cm ($399.95).

I’m pretty small, so he told me what he thought I needed to know as far as waist size, flex, and weight. The technical discussion didn’t delve into specifics about materials and construction. Considering the amount of information he was giving me about everything else, that was probably a good move.

Peter did a good job of presenting all the brands and explaining the features in terms a novice could understand. He gave me some information on the companies, as well as some of the discounts and deals the shop offered.

Ultimately he recommded the B-Line, which was retailing for 400 dollars, because he said the brand carries a two-year warranty, uses good materials, builds only about twelve boards a day (by hand), has excellent quality control, and is a local company.

He didn’t offer to show me boots or bindings, so I asked for a quick rundown. He mentioned I would spend 100 to 150 dollars for a good binding, but didn’t actually show me any models. A good example of a missed add-on sale.

He briefly mentioned Northwave as being his favorite boot, and said that I would want to go with a woman’s model because of the difference in men’s and women’s foot shape. He said I’d spend between 150 to 280 dollars depending–but also mentioned that he had some of last year’s models left in my size that ran around 70 dollars. But again, he didn’t show me any product.

If I had gone with his board recommendation, and if he’d spent the time to show me boots and bindings, my purchase would have been upward of 570 to 620 dollars. He gave me a catalog from each of the brands we’d looked at–which was a nice touch–and I made my escape to the next shop.

Store Number One: Snowboard Specialty

Product Knowledge: A

Sales Technique: B+

Add-on Sales: D

Insertion Point Two: A Multi-Sport Store

My second visit was to a ski/snowboard shop where the snowboard section is given its own separate part of the store and called by a different name. It was about 4:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, the day after the mountains received a huge dump.

The store carried major snowboard brands–Burton, Sims, K2, and Vans, and was divided with hardgoods on the left and softgoods on the right. Boards–separated by size–were stacked along the wall, so you had to pull the board out to see what it was.

Conventional bindings were displayed above the boards while boots and step-ins were displayed along the wall next to the boards.

While salesperson “Ralph” (again, not he real name) quickly greeted me, he also quickly confused me with his flippant opener: “So, what do you think?”

“About what?” I asked.

“So which one would you like to try on–maybe this one?” he said, pointing to a $209.95 Burton Women’s Ruler.

All I could tell him was that I had absolutely no idea. It was as if we’d already had a conversation I’d somehow missed. He wasn’t wearing any identification, so it took me a few minutes to assure myself he was actually an employee–not some random snowboarder who had hit one too many trees head first.

From there I offered my scenario.

He said he’d probably put me in last year’s Clicker and Sherpa boot model, which I could get for $179.95.

Wait. A Clicker? What’s that? What are we talking about here? I had to ask, “And a Clicker is … ?”

“Oh, that’s this binding,” he said, pointing to a Clicker binding mounted to a board that was being used to display boots. I had to ask, again, “Well, what’s that?”

Then came his explanation, which consisted of “it’s a step-in binding” accompanied by a visual demonstration, which, by the way, was ineffective because he apparently didn’t know how to get the boot to click in properly, despite a good deal of wiggling and fiddling.

He also showed me a Burton Custom Freestyle, retailing for $109.95, and went through a basic demonstration of the ratcheting system. But he didn’t offer any comparisons between the two, which was disappointing.

When I asked him which he would recommend, he told me it was strictly a matter of personal preference. He also admitted that only step-in he’d ridden was Switch boots and bindings (which they didn’t carry) and he didn’t like them–although he had some friends who rode Clicker and seemed to like it okay.

We moved onto boards, and he asked me if I remembered what I rode last year and how long it was (I told him I thought it was a K2 and that’s all I remembered), then asked me what I weighed. He pulled out a K2 Luna, retailing for $349.95, which he said would be perfect for me. I found that odd considering he still had yet to ask me what type of riding I preferred.

I asked if there was anything else he could show me and he pulled out a Burton Supermodel 151, retailing for 439 dollars. He explained a little about radius, sidecut, and construction, but it seemed more for the purpose of showing off his pool of knowledge rather than teaching me something about the board itself.

A few silent moments went by, he asked if there was anything else, and I said I didn’t think so. I casually pulled a few boards out to take a look, and he left me with, “If you have any more questions, just ask.” With that he wandered away.

Store Number Two: Multi-Sport

Product Knowledge: C-

Sales Technique: D

Add-on Sales: D

Insertion Point Three: A Chain Store

My last stop was a chain store–a superstore, no less–packed with people on a Sunday afternoon signing up for a discount card to one of the local mountains. I had already checked out the entire snowboard line–which took about fifteen minutes–before anyone came to greet me. When someone finally did, it turned out he was the ski guy who really couldn’t help me, but suggested I wait for “Johnny” (not his real name), the snowboard guy, whose shift started in fifteen minutes.

That meant I had to endure a half hour of waiting just to talk to someone who knew about snowboards.

When Johnny finally did arrive, he did little more to answer my questions than read from the hangtags mounted on each board’s base. When I asked him why the Burton Charger was 120 dollars less than the Burton Supermodel (retailing for $439.99), he told me it was because the Charger was heavier, and let me feel the difference.

He at least asked me what type of riding I wanted to do and how much I weighed. Unfortunately, he had very little brand or product knowledge, had to hunt around for what he was looking for, and showed little enthusiasm about any of it.

When he told me at one point he was looking for women’s boards and it didn’t look like they had any in stock, I asked him what the difference was. He said they were “lighter, and built the way the girls on the team wanted them built.”

With regard to bindings, he recommended conventional over step-in. Conventional strap bindings, he said, were just as easy to get in and out of as the step-ins, and the softer boots were more comfortable than step-in boots.

The store carried both Switch and K2–although he didn’t show me Switch at all and never offered a demonstration of how the K2 system worked. He recommended the Burton Freestyle for $119.99.

It was about that time, ten minutes or so after he started helping me, that he got a phone for $109.95, and went through a basic demonstration of the ratcheting system. But he didn’t offer any comparisons between the two, which was disappointing.

When I asked him which he would recommend, he told me it was strictly a matter of personal preference. He also admitted that only step-in he’d ridden was Switch boots and bindings (which they didn’t carry) and he didn’t like them–although he had some friends who rode Clicker and seemed to like it okay.

We moved onto boards, and he asked me if I remembered what I rode last year and how long it was (I told him I thought it was a K2 and that’s all I remembered), then asked me what I weighed. He pulled out a K2 Luna, retailing for $349.95, which he said would be perfect for me. I found that odd considering he still had yet to ask me what type of riding I preferred.

I asked if there was anything else he could show me and he pulled out a Burton Supermodel 151, retailing for 439 dollars. He explained a little about radius, sidecut, and construction, but it seemed more for the purpose of showing off his pool of knowledge rather than teaching me something about the board itself.

A few silent moments went by, he asked if there was anything else, and I said I didn’t think so. I casually pulled a few boards out to take a look, and he left me with, “If you have any more questions, just ask.” With that he wandered away.

Store Number Two: Multi-Sport

Product Knowledge: C-

Sales Technique: D

Add-on Sales: D

Insertion Point Three: A Chain Store

My last stop was a chain store–a superstore, no less–packed with people on a Sunday afternoon signing up for a discount card to one of the local mountains. I had already checked out the entire snowboard line–which took about fifteen minutes–before anyone came to greet me. When someone finally did, it turned out he was the ski guy who really couldn’t help me, but suggested I wait for “Johnny” (not his real name), the snowboard guy, whose shift started in fifteen minutes.

That meant I had to endure a half hour of waiting just to talk to someone who knew about snowboards.

When Johnny finally did arrive, he did little more to answer my questions than read from the hangtags mounted on each board’s base. When I asked him why the Burton Charger was 120 dollars less than the Burton Supermodel (retailing for $439.99), he told me it was because the Charger was heavier, and let me feel the difference.

He at least asked me what type of riding I wanted to do and how much I weighed. Unfortunately, he had very little brand or product knowledge, had to hunt around for what he was looking for, and showed little enthusiasm about any of it.

When he told me at one point he was looking for women’s boards and it didn’t look like they had any in stock, I asked him what the difference was. He said they were “lighter, and built the way the girls on the team wanted them built.”

With regard to bindings, he recommended conventional over step-in. Conventional strap bindings, he said, were just as easy to get in and out of as the step-ins, and the softer boots were more comfortable than step-in boots.

The store carried both Switch and K2–although he didn’t show me Switch at all and never offered a demonstration of how the K2 system worked. He recommended the Burton Freestyle for $119.99.

It was about that time, ten minutes or so after he started helping me, that he got a phone call and excused himself to go take it.

The selection there was better than at the other stores, with eleven brands of boards, and seven brands of both boots and bindings. The products were displayed well, with the model names, descriptions, and prices. There was plenty of room to move around, and the products were all displayed in a way that allowed you to pick them up and get a better look. I couldn’t see a noticeable difference in price from the other stores. But the customer service was dismal and product knowledge scant at best.

Store Number Three: Chain Store

Product Knowledge: D

Sales Technique: D-

Add-on Sales: D

Conclusion

While we can’t draw blanket conclusions from three short store visits, these were the impression I was left with.

The stores that first-time buyers are most likely to shop have the least knowledgeable sales staffs and the worst service. Even the most basic concepts were mangled or garbled into gibberish. To top it off, these problems also extend to fundamental principles of sales. Did I mention that no one–at any of the stores–actually tried to close the sale?

It’s not news that salespeople need to ride the product they’re selling in order to sell the right product to the right person, but it’s scary how little that’s actually happening.

If I were truly a first-time buyer, I wouldn’t know much more after shopping at the last two stores than I did when I started. While I would be most likely to return to the specialty store–simply because the employee showed knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport–I wouldn’t know anything about outerwear or accessories (neither were ever mentioned).

Unfortunately, if I were a neophyte, it would take years before I got all the silly ideas out of my head that were planted by people who were supposed to know what they were talking about.

one call and excused himself to go take it.

The selection there was better than at the other stores, with eleven brands of boards, and seven brands of both boots and bindings. The products were displayed well, with the model names, descriptions, and prices. There was plenty of room to move around, and the products were all displayed in a way that allowed you to pick them up and get a better look. I couldn’t see a noticeable difference in price from the other stores. But the customer service was dismal and product knowledge scant at best.

Store Number Three: Chain Store

Product Knowledge: D

Sales Technique: D-

Add-on Sales: D

Conclusion

While we can’t draw blanket conclusions from three short store visits, these were the impression I was left with.

The stores that first-time buyers are most likely to shop have the least knowledgeable sales staffs and the worst service. Even the most basic concepts were mangled or garbled into gibberish. To top it off, these problems also extend to fundamental principles of sales. Did I mention that no one–at any of the stores–actually tried to close the sale?

It’s not news that salespeople need to ride the product they’re selling in order to sell the right product to the right person, but it’s scary how little that’s actually happening.

If I were truly a first-time buyer, I wouldn’t know much more after shopping at the last two stores than I did when I started. While I would be most likely to return to the specialty store–simply because the employee showed knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport–I wouldn’t know anything about outerwear or accessories (neither were ever mentioned).

Unfortunately, if I were a neophyte, it would take years before I got all the silly ideas out of my head that were planted by people who were supposed to know what they were talking about.