Watching the Big Box Selling Process; Thoughts for the Specialty Retailer

Store One

I would guess the girl was 14. She was at this big box sporting goods store with her parents picking out a board, boots and bindings. She didn’t say much and was following her parent’s lead. Their credit card I suppose.
It isn’t easy, you know, to hang around through the whole sales process- close enough to hear what’s being said but far enough way so that the sales person doesn’t call security.
In this particular case, security should have been called. Not for me but to hold the sales person until the police could show up to arrest her for impersonating somebody who knew something about snowboarding.
I didn’t hear any discussion about whether the girl had snowboarded before. I don’t think she had. The first criteria for selecting the board was length, determined by the girl’s height. Her weight was never asked. There was no discussion of flex or where she might be riding and how she was going to learn.
The second criteria was color. Blue seemed to be the mother’s preference, so blue snowboards was what the sales person showed them. She seemed to be able to distinguish blue from other colors, so at least she wasn’t color blind.
It was at this point I started to get a little antsy. My growing disquiet didn’t decline at all when they started talking about bindings. The mother took the lead on this. Arguably, she was the most knowledgeable one in the group- including the sales person. At least Mom knew what she wanted and why.
And the major criteria for selecting a binding was? You guessed it. It had to coordinate with the board. So without a word, the sales person started showing them bindings that looked good with the blue board.
Well, that was easy. The parents looked relieved. This was obviously going very well. Their daughter just stood there.
Next, the sales person asked, “Are you going to mount these yourself?” Suddenly, the father looked troubled. It was clear where even semi-mechanical duties lay in this family. After an uncomfortable pause, the sales person came to the rescue, if you insist on calling it that, by saying, “We can mount them for you for $10.00. Looking relieved, the father readily agreed.
“Which foot do you want forward?” asked the sales person. “Can’t you ride either way?” queried the mom.  “Yes, but most people have a preference,” was the reply.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Showing her great knowledge, the sales person said, “Well, most people ride with their left forward, so how about we mount them that way?” That was agreed to, and represented the end of the mounting discussion. No talk of angles or stance width. Granted, the girl probably didn’t know what angle or width she wanted, but the concept that it could make a different might have been mentioned.
Now, onto boots. Though I’ve never sold a snowboard in my life to a consumer, I would have started with boots, but what do I know.
However, I would not have started with these boots, by which I mean any of the boots in the whole store. Everybody reading this knows the kind of boots I mean. No support, a lousy lining, cheap construction.
This is the end of my story. I don’t know what happened with the boots, or if the sale was consummated. Though I’d seen it before, I never react very well in these circumstances. My frustration and stress level goes so far through the roof that I either have to get out of the store, or rush over to the family and beg them to let me help. That’s what I should have done.
There were good Oxygen boards there from last season that would have worked. They even had some blue in them. There were some perfectly serviceable bindings, but they didn’t go with blue. Oh well. Boot wise, I would have told them to flee into the night. I don’t think that would have gone over very well with store personnel.
I should have jumped into the middle of it. I should have fed them information until I was thrown out of the store. But I chickened out. And though she’ll never see it, I want to apologize to that poor girl who is going to have something less than an ideal experience when she goes to learn to snowboard and to her family, who think they got a good deal but really got something else.
Store Two
In a second chain retailer, arguably a step up from the first, the couple told the sales kid (who had told me he was a snowboarder) they were looking for a board, boot and binding for their 14 year old daughter who had been snowboarding a couple of years. Something not too expensive. The sales kid’s immediate response was, “Well, these are the setups we have on sale.”
He cued off the “not too expensive,” perhaps assuming if they were in his store, price must be the most important thing. That’s why you’d come into his store, right? Much of the rest of the conversation was in generalities and was driven by the customer. The sales kid responded in generalities to customer assertions like, “We want something that’s kind of medium quality.” “How about this one?” he’d ask, reaching out to pick up a binding.
I left before the conversation ended. The kid was sort of starting to wonder why I was hanging around and watching out of the corner of my eye. I don’t know if he sold anything or not. If he did, I have no reason to believe it was a good fit for their daughter.
What I Learned
Let’s do a little customer segmentation work here. Look at the admittedly oversimplified grid below.
Just to save me some typing, let’s call these “ideal type” customers NKPS, KPS, KNPI, and KPI. NKPS, for example, refers to customers who fit in the box with Not Knowledgeable on top and Price Sensitive on the left.
Obviously, most customers don’t fit perfectly in one of these boxes. They are not, for example, knowledgeable or stupid. There are a variety of levels of knowledge and of price sensitivity. Nobody is completely price insensitive. But they give us a way to think about the customer base.
The KPIs are the ones that specialty shops tend to own. They will find you, appreciate your product knowledge and know they could buy cheaper somewhere else but not really care. God bless ‘em, I wish there were more.
The biggest challenge for the specialty retailer is the NKPS customer. The customers I’ve described above are examples of them. In the first place, they are the least likely to show up in your shop. If they do show up, they are the hardest to convince to buy because they start off knowing the least and have a predilection to spend less anyway. You can spend a lot of time educating them only to have them buy somewhere cheaper.
You have the same problem with the KPS types, but at least you can hope to spend less time educating them before they buy somewhere cheap.
The NKPI customers are the ones where you can best spend your time and hope to make your knowledge a real competitive advantage.
What I suggest is that your sales staff be armed with questions to determine how each customer could generally be characterized. If you’ve done your sales training, they already have most of those questions- they just need to think about the answers in terms of this classification.
In the first place, it would be interesting to see how many of your customers fell, more or less, into which category. I also suspect you could provide information, guidance, and help in product selection to the customer more efficiently based on how they were categorized.
I think what I might have just said is that you can do a better job of creating value for the customer. It is a matter of faith that the specialty shop competes by “creating value.” What I think that means is providing the most useful information in the most efficient and understandable way. I’m suggesting that this classification of customers might help you do that.
I’ve also visited a number of specialty shops and I think I spotted a couple of things that the successful shop does way better than the chain- and a couple they have to do as well. More on them next article.