As wearable fitness trackers go mainstream, industry aims to get up to speed

Samsung, Sony and reportedly Apple are getting into the fitness wearable and tracking business. What does it mean for fitness brands and retailers?
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Some the of world’s largest technology firms are paying a lot of attention to the business of wearable fitness trackers and its bound to be yet another evolution for the fitness equipment and specialty retail industry.

The devices, typically worn like a watch, initially gained popularity with products like FitBit and Nike+ Fuelband. They track users’ fitness data, including number of steps, heart rate, calories burned and sleeping patterns. While not the most accurate of readings, the widespread consumer appeal has been the relative simplicity of trackers and their ability to incentivize and increase a person’s physical activity each day.

They’ve become so popular that leading technology firm Samsung announced its entry into the field at last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It’s new Gear Fit features a curved OLED touch screen, is water-resistant and could prove more exciting than Samsung’s other recent mobile debuts, according to TechCrunch.

 Samsung Gear Fit

Samsung Gear Fit

Elsewhere, Sony plans to launch its SmartBand fitness tracker in March and Apple is said to be working toward a new product in the category. Start-up brand Flyfit takes a different approach — gunning for more accurate results — creating an ankle band instead of an arm band.

 Flyfit

Flyfit

Traditional fitness equipment brands are paying close attention to the trend, watching to see who emerges as leaders in field and how best to interact and incorporate the technology into their products.

At Nautilus, the company responded by launching its own tracker through its Bowflex brand, in September 2013 . The Bowflex Boost (MSRP $50) tracks calories steps and distance 24-hours a day (the battery can last 11 days) and then wirelessly send the data to a free mobile app via Bluetooth. Nautilus worked with technology firm IDT to develop the Boost.

 Bowflex Boost

Bowflex Boost

“The next generation of workout equipment is being inspired by consumers' need to connect, share, monitor and track fitness activity across their social channels and mobile devices,” company officials said at the launch.

“Wearables have definitely arrived,” said Dave Flynt, director of interaction, design and development at fitness equipment brand Precor. “At this point, there is a lot of focus [for the devices] to capture the data, but from our viewpoint, there has yet to be a winner in turning that data into effective insight, and [most importantly] long-term action.”

In other words, he said, people might get a kick out of seeing how many steps they take in a week, and trying beat it each following week, but that novelty likely won't last long before users want to know how it’s all creating meaningful results in their overall health and fitness.

Flynt said the more important response to the trend is to make sure the fitness information users capture is easily transportable between whatever devices and platforms they choose to eventually derive that insight and action.

Indeed, users are increasingly demanding the ability to seamlessly track, merge and analyze their data from a variety fitness activities — such as the home treadmill, the gym elliptical, a weekend trail run and steps taken at the office — in one place.

“Every fitness company wants to be that single platform, but we’ve been in this space for a while to know it doesn’t work that way, Flynt said. "Maybe one platform grows to dominate, but more likely the winners are the ones who allow users to pull their content across several platforms.”

There’s a similar story being played out in the fitness equipment console world.

For specialty fitness retailers, the message is to get educated on the technology as more customers come in asking how and if their devices will interact with the latest fitness equipment. There might also be opportunity to sell the devices in-store. "The fitness technology aisle at Best Buy keeps growing," Flynt noted.

Of course, it’s not all good news in the fitness tracking category. Last week also saw FitBit announce a voluntary recall of its Force fitness tracker after users increasingly complained about allergic skin reactions with to the band.

--David Clucas

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