Accessories gain space & attention at HF Biz show

Retailers are waking up when it comes to accessories of all kinds and to the reality of how a small price tag can affect their bottom line. And manufacturers of everything from electronics to yoga mats and weight belts to balance balls are filling in the side aisles and back of the hall in greater numbers at the Health & Fitness Business Expo.
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Retailers are waking up and smelling the coffee when it comes to accessories of all kinds and to the reality of how a small price tag can affect their bottom line. And manufacturers of everything from electronics to yoga mats and weight belts to balance balls are filling in the side aisles and back of the hall in greater numbers at the Health & Fitness Business Expo.

At this year's show Aug. 7-9 in Denver, it appeared that overall numbers -- or perhaps booth size -- of such companies were up. They were busy, too, with several telling us that meetings with key retailers during the show made it all worthwhile.

As SNEWS has said before, retailers need to learn -- and are learning -- that they need to be more than just a sea of steel not only to attract more consumers, but also to achieve more add-on sales and become a place that consumers frequent for everyday fitness and activity needs, not just for an occasional large investment.

The traditional players were all there -- the weight belt and glove companies, the rubber-resistance specialists, and the major heart rate monitor company. But, in addition, this year included more from the mind-body, stretch and balance genre (indicating an accelerating of that trend) and more "chatzkies," as one East Coast retailer we know calls them -- all kinds of miscellaneous and small stuff at lower prices that's easy to bring into a store on a trial.

In the first SNEWS survey of fitness specialty retailers (published in our July GearTrends fitness magazine -- if you missed it, the magazine will be available free of charge in PDF format by Sept. 1 at www.geartrends.com), we found the percent of sales in accessories was all over the board, with some telling us it was as high as 15 percent to 20 percent. We see no reason why all specialty retailers shouldn't be adding on accessories and selling them solo and pushing their overall sales percentage that high.

Below are a few highlights of new items and companies (in alphabetical order) of what SNEWS saw at the HF Biz show. Don't expect every last item, of course, and don't expect a mention of all the equipment companies that happen to have an accessory or two -- unless it's really a new deal for the company or is otherwise groundbreaking. For our take on the category of balance, stretch and mind-body -- in addition to a few mentions below -- see the SNEWS Digest from Aug. 18. This is of course a continuing series of show wrap-ups, which started on Aug. 11 with overall notes and cardio equipment, continued on Aug. 18 with two topics -- strength and balance -- and coverage of the talk by stats guru Harvey Lauer, and keeps on going today with accessories. More to come next week.

Accufitness -- We already wrote about the amazing Hydryx towel in a July review, but it was formally introduced to the market at the show. A thick chamois-like towel that is stored wet and quickly cools, even chills, once you take it out of a container. A great deal and super product for a retail of $19.95. In addition, the company introduced a first-of-its-kind body fat caliper for kids (and their parents) called the FitKid Caliper ($19.95). Actually the same caliper the company currently has, this one comes packaged for the parents or other adults like teachers with informational brochures and other guides about kid's fitness.

Altus Athletic -- Recently expanding from its emphasis on weight belts and gloves to include all kinds of other stuff like ab exercisers, mats and mind-body gear, the company rolled out Digital Rope (retail $22). It's a digital -- oh duh -- jump rope that has a tiny screen on the handle that shows time elapsed, turns of the rope, and calories (although well-intended, we are skeptical of the accuracy since it doesn't ask for body weight and of course everybody's jump style is different). Other stuff included a stability ball stand -- like a big saucer with 3 short legs retailing for $25 -- that lets you sit on the ball with built-in stability. Could be great for beginners as well as to introduce the concept of sitting on a ball. Two bungee cords attach to the stand so it can be used to exercise too, and the whole thing comes with a pretty nicely done sheet of exercises with pictures. Another new product were Dynaballs, which have an exterior of a rubbery material for a grippier feel and have a handhold built right in to the ball shape. They come in bright primary colors and are filled with a sand-like mixture. They come in weights of three, five and seven pounds each. Sort of a less-intimidating dumbbell -- especially for beginners, and the ergonomic handle allows the user to move the ball through sport-specific movements. Retail $23.

Benefit Health Media/Training Fan -- First time at the show, founder and creator of the Training Fan product kept busy explaining the concept -- a fine one actually, that we reviewed about a year ago before she went big-time. Imagine a book of exercises, with illustrations and how-to tips -- except each one is placed on a strip of lightly coated paper for durability and attached at one end much like a, yes, fan, only thicker. It's a simple and smart idea. Suggested retail $24.95 and three-cheers for entrepreneurship.

BOSU/Fitness Quest -- Already popular in clubs, the half-round ball for balance and aerobic exercise made its debut to retail here. We think the BOSU should be a great home fitness product (see our review from March 2003), albeit still slightly pricey with a list of about $130. We saw all kinds of folks bobbing around on the half-round balls in the booth -- something about balance product that beckons anyone to just try it. Comes with videos and other instructional information.

Ekho Heart Rate Monitors -- A new company that has been only selling online and in the Chicago area, Ekho came to the show to go national, with HF Biz being its first trade show. The heart rate monitors it sells range in suggested retail from $50 to $115, with all the features you'd expect as well as a five-year warranty on all models. We hear the company puts a real "Midwestern" touch on customer service AND offers great retailer margins.

Fast Forward Fitness -- A brand new company that was making its debut at the show, Fast Forward Fitness was founded by recent college grad Andrew Gardner in Sparks, Nev. -- a very eager company founder who was constantly cruising the show floor to hook up with distributors when he wasn't in the booth. The company makes and distributes products to be used with CV equipment -- things like reading racks ($19.95 and $36.95 for one with an adjustable neck that attaches to the machine's arms), PVC vinyl mats to go under equipment ($35-$96), accessory trays ($19.95), and the like. We liked the Fitness Caddy, which can hold water bottles, towels, keys and other stuff and attaches to strength equipment or other equipment (also suggested retail of $19.95).

Fitter International -- Although a balance and stability specialist, Fitter also spends a lot of time advocating combing several of its products to turn offices into functional training spaces all day long -- sit on a no-burst stability ball, use a balance board for a foot rest (and stand on it while on the phone), or get a Power Web (a stretchy grid that resembles a tiny racquet) for hand-training. We saw a lot of attendees doing a lot of playing at the booth, which was constantly busy. Also debuting was the Trikke, a scooter-like thing that is powered by the driver rocking and pivoting on it.

Harbinger Sports -- A standby in the fitness world and at the show, Harbinger didn't have anything new but was showing its cross-training product (colorful gloves for all-around use) as well as its stretch ropes and other product.

JolieWorld -- Barely finalized a couple of months ago, the new attachable shoe weight products by JolieWorld were unveiled at the show. They are compact, one-pound weights (like little sand bags in a way) that tie to shoe laces and secure with Velcro with a hidden key pocket (retail $20). The company says the weights (heavier ones to come soon, as well as new colors) are great for many activities such as golfing, hiking and walking the dog, not only for aerobics. The company has done a nifty job tailoring ads and info to teen girls, emphasizing the fun colors and "cool" factor.

Keys Fitness -- Never a company to sit on its hands, Keys is adding to its extensive accessories line with some 15 SKUs of yoga, Pilates and body sculpting gear marketing with the name of fitness guru Karen Voight. They include a Pilates Resist-a-Ring and training DVD ($28), a yoga mat ($20), a stability ball ($25), and a complete yoga package including a sticky mat, a yoga block and DVD ($30). Another package is a body sculpting kit with two Green Genie balls (green round hand weights), the stability ball, a sticky mat and two DVDs ($60). Actually items similar to these are already in the Keys lineup, but these have the Voight name, but we're not sure if that name really means much to anyone outside of the inner circle of fitness. Still, they certainly aren't bad and we like the kits.

PCE Health & Fitness/LifeSpan -- A new company, there was a stretch trainer tucked in the back corner of its booth (fronted by the treadmills and other equipment). SNEWS asked about it and was told the company was getting feedback and would decide which direction to go. (It did look remarkably like Precor's trainer, though.)

Polar -- There was quite a bit of buzz generating from Polar's new WearLink Coded Transmitter, which is made of a soft fabric material with electrodes integrated into the strap -- seemingly much more comfortable than the old semi-flexible plastic strap that has given SNEWSers enough chafe marks to last a lifetime. Individual coding eliminates interference with other heart rate monitors, providing an ideal solution for crowded cardio rooms in health clubs. Sha Cohen, fitness account manager for Polar, told SNEWS the strap is meant to last for up to 100 washes, which translates to up to three years of use -- depending on how sweaty and slimy you get during each workout of course. It now comes with two models (M61 and M32), will be offered as an add-on accessory for current Polar users sometime in 2004, and will also work with current models.

Productive Fitness Products -- A purveyor -- in fact one of the only ones -- of nifty little reference books for different kinds of exercise, founder Mike Jespersen was showing his newest titles: The Great Barbell Handbook, The Great Yoga Handbook, and The Great Balance & Stability Handbook. These are super educational guides that guide newcomers simply through exercises and ones that every retailer should be able to add-on to nearly every sale at a retail of $8.95 each.

Raw Power -- Raw Power honestly had one of the niftiest accessories at the show. Another one of those no-brainer, why-didn't-I-think-of-that products. Called the Boa Grip Collar (patent pending, of course), it's a completely new look in the standard squeeze and screw-tightened collars for barbell ends. Much like a very small belt, it has a one-handed Velcro-like closure and a rubberized interior so you strap it on the barbell end and tighten it down like a belt. The rubberized interior keeps it from slipping and holds all the weight you want. Designed to fit dumbbells, and standard and Olympic bars (suggested retail, $17 to $22, depending on the size). Super idea!

Red Oxx -- New at the show were the Dip Belt and the Tricep Rope, as well as a higher-tech heavy-duty Triple Line knee and wrist wraps (suggested retail, $23.50 and $12.50, respectively).

Rist-Lok -- Founded in 1995 and built in a garage, Rist-Loc is a simple yet effective wrist-support design that combines a quarter-inch neoprene next to the skin with an outer layer of industrial strapping that loops through a metal ring and secures with Velcro for security and adjustability. The company has been re-launched in the last year with Ted Butch, who tells SNEWS he plans to introduce in the next year products that support ankles and elbows. Butch tells us that his product is used by serious weight lifters, as well as athletes and workers who require comfortable and additional wrist support.

Schiek -- With its full line of high-quality gloves, belts, straps and supports, Schiek continues the tradition with a new leather belt using its patented conical shape from its nylon belt (retail, $65). Also new is a Shiek Gym Bag (retail, $45) that has been sized to be about perfect for gym workouts in its height, length and depth, as well as in its configuration of pockets and zippers and such. You may pay a bit more for these products but the quality is huge. We particularly love the patented "fins" on the gloves so you don't have to struggle to get the fingers off. What a no-brainer.

SPRI Products -- A standby at all the shows with its rubber resistance products, balls and videos, SPRI didn't have a lot of new stuff to show but had simply re-swizzled a few things. For example, all its VHS consumer videos are now on DVD (retail $15 and at stores in October). The company also has a nearly new kit it calls "Pilates Anywhere…Anytime," which is a package including mat and elastic tubes to imitate Reformer exercises that a user can take along easily. And the stability balls are repackaged to come with basic educational videos. Finally, the company introduced two New Life Yoga videos -- one for expectant women and one for new moms -- $15 each.

Treadmill Buddy -- Where do we start? President and inventor Irving Feder is extraordinarily enthusiastic. The product? Basically, it's two bungee tubes that you attach to a treadmill, stationary bike, doorjam, wheelchair, swimming pool or even hospital bed, and Feder says you can do a variety of exercises with it like rows, tricep extensions or bicep curls. The cords have a so-called "Safe-Stop" feature that is a cord lock that lets you adjust the tension so the cords stop at a designated point -- an advantage over regular elastic tubing that Feder points out keeps stretching ad infinitum. Maybe if someone is walking really slow, it could be a distracting activity, but it does have a large learning curve. Suggested retail is $25, but dealers can get it for a third of that, which Feder hopes will entice some to simply throw them in as a gift with treadmill purchases.

TKO -- One of the top accessory companies -- or THE top one according to the SNEWS fitness retailer survey published in the GearTrends magazine -- TKO introduced an inflatable "heavy bag" that isn't really, well, that heavy. Mitch Carlin, senior vice president for TKO, told us the company designed the bag to provide an ideal workout solution for home users that would be "much easier on the joints, muscles and bones" than a traditional heavy bag. We liked the feel, and the package ($180 suggested retail), which includes a door mount to attach the bag to any closed home door.

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