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Since the thread about customers butting in on conversations between sales staff and other customers began, there's something that's been bugging me.
Our local MEC store (like REI) got a new manager last year, and one of the rules he put into place was that all staff had to be available to work every weekend. Until then, the majority of people working there in the evenings and on weekends were part-timers, most of them doing it for the pro-deals, and because they enjoyed sharing their experience.
It meant that when you asked a staff member for advice, they usually had a good idea how to help you, and because they weren't on commission they were more interested in getting you the right gear than making a big sale. Of course, they were getting their experience by taking to the mountains most weekends, so when the new policy came into force, one by one they quit.
As a result, the store is now staffed by a few old-timers; the rest of them are kids who know little about the equipment and are severely lacking in actual experience. While they may have a love of the outdoors, their advice is often ill-informed and sometimes even dangerous. Some might have done some climbing in a gym, but are trying to answer questions about real mountain ascents. Others might have done a lot of camping with their buddies, but have no idea what kind of equipment is needed for lightweight backpacking.
Before the policy change, I saw things like the man (a high school principal who really didn't need the money) spend a full three hours outfitting two kids with complete sets of AT ski gear. I picked up a lot of good tips from a retired ACMG mountain guide who worked there, and never had a problem getting an honest opinion from a staff member as to what was good and what wasn't. When I needed new boots, there was always someone around who was willing to trundle out a dozen different kinds for me to try on.
After the changes, I witnessed things like the woman who, when asked for a McMurdo Fastfind believed the customer was talking about a SPOT. When he explained the difference, she said they didn't sell them. Because we were talking about something that was potentially life-or-death for the customer, I'm afraid I interrupted and pointed out the Fastfind displayed in the cabinet in front of her.
I had to deal with the aftermath of the kid who, when asked by one of my newbies what kind of food to carry for backpacking, told her to buy a big bag of beef jerky, and who sold her a $300 dollar backpack that didn't fit and overpriced boots that were a size too small.
Then there was the guy who told me the waistbelt on a pack couldn't transfer any weight to the hips unless it was at least three inches wide. I think he was trying to sell me something a bit more expensive than the old Outbound pack I have.
And now at that same 'cooperative' store, I have to caution new and enthusiastic hikers to watch out for the professional sales guys who will happily sell them thousands of dollars worth of stuff they don't need.
As a consequence, I've been going through my list of sponsors and making a point of doing an anonymous visit to see what kind of stuff they try to sell me. If they're just trying to scam me, they're off my website with an explanation sent to the management about why I did it.
So tell me, am I being too harsh? Does caveat emptor apply here? The interest in websites like this suggests otherwise, that people just aren't getting honest and accurate information about the equipment upon which their life (or at least their enjoyment of the outdoors) might rely. And I think that's why the advice of people who know the differences between the newest-latest-greatest gear and what actually works in real-life is so important.
By the way, this isn't a shot at anyone here. I think that retailers who take enough interest in the equipment they sell to come here and read the reviews is probably a bit more responsible and conscientious than a kid who picked that store over working at McDonalds.