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A Tale of Two Shoe Stores

From Toby--

About eight years ago, I got it in my head that I needed a physical challenge–a very large physical challenge. I decided that I would compete in a triathlon. Considering I hated running, this was perhaps not the best choice, but I decided to do it anyway.

With steadfast commitment, I hired a personal trainer. He analyzed the way I cycled, swam, and ran. After this study, he announced that he was going to run with me twice a week for 10 weeks to teach me how to run properly.

At the end of the 10 weeks, I was lighter and fitter but suffering incredible pain in my shins and calves. My trainer advised me to buy better running shoes that offset the imbalance in my stance. Having always used Nike shoes, I went to the Nike store. I walked in and saw an entire wall of impressive looking running shoes. I asked one of the salespeople for help choosing a pair.

“Well, here are 20,” he said, pointing to the display and looking at me like I was an idiot for not seeing the wall of running shoes in front of me.

“Which is a good one?” I queried.

“Well, this one is on promotion,” he responded, picking up one shoe.

“That’s fine, but I need a really good running shoe,” I insisted.

He then grabbed another shoe and said, “This is the most expensive.”

Clearly, he wasn’t understanding my question. I proceeded to explain my problem: the pain in my legs and my fervent desire to compete in a triathlon. I then asked again for a recommendation, to which he responded, “I don’t know. I play basketball.”

Nike invested a ton of money on the in-store merchandising of this outlet, a place to showcase the power of its brand. And I expect that a lot of basketball players had a fantastic shopping experience here. But I left empty-handed. This unprepared employee lost the sale of not one pair of shoes, but possibly four pairs per year, because long-distance runners go through shoes very quickly. And the salesperson’s lack of knowledge–and inability to guide me to the person who had that knowledge–indirectly cost the store additional sales, because I am quite vocal. I shared my dissatisfaction with other runners.

Shortly after this disappointing shopper experience, I was heading to the United Kingdom for a visit with my family, and I decided to get advice from my father, an avid runner, while I was there.

He pointed me to a shop called Advance Performance in Peterborough, a small shop that specialized in shoes for runners. When I walked in, I marveled at the unusual environment.

The polar opposite of the sleek Nike store, Advance Performance was cluttered with shoes everywhere and a running machine in the corner. (In deference to my friends at Advance Performance, I have to say they now have two very nice new outlets in Peterborough and Cambridge.)

A rather average-looking man approached and offered his help. Already, my shopping experience was different from my Nike visit. I explained the problem with my legs, and he told me to take off my shoes. He knelt down and looked at my legs and feet. Then he asked, “When did you break your angle?”

Surprised that he could know about my accident, I answered that it happened about 10 years earlier.

“Did you do any physical therapy?” he asked.

“Not much,” I replied.

“It shows,” he said, not unkindly.

He explained that my feet were pronated and that the injury aggravated the problem. The salesman–fast becoming a trusted advisor–then put me on the running machine and conducted a gait analysis. He watched to see the way my feet hit the ground when I ran. He had me try on six different pairs of running shoes and get on the machine to test each one, videotaping each effort. After viewing the tapes, he prescribed the shoe that would best meet my particular needs.

As it happened, the choice was about 40 percent more expensive than the running shoes I had been wearing. I bought two pairs of these godsends and now order online from Advance Performance whenever I need replacements. This salesperson responded admirably to my need. He didn’t need the spit and polish of a slickly merchandised store, nor did he sit back and rely on brand performance. He burst through the performance barrier and instilled my faith in the shoe.

Not only did the “independent specialist” have the potential to strongly influence Toby’s buying behavior eight years ago, but its influence continues to the present day, some 20 pairs later.

So which of these three channels–the showcase store, the independent specialist, or the chain sports store–is most important if you want to target “novice triathletes”?

Clearly, Toby only bought two pairs of shoes from an independent specialist, whereas he bought 18 pairs from the chain sports store. The sales are bigger in the latter than the former. But without the independent specialist, those sales may never have happened.

What’s important here is that different environments influence different shoppers differently, so it’s essential to prioritize channels based on the influence they have on target shoppers, not on the value of the sales you make in them.

This blog found in Course 20: Unexpected Influence.

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