Every year, a couple of balance-oriented companies show up at the Health & Fitness Business Expo, floating like islands in the sea of steel, a bit of an oddity, attracting decent interest but not overwhelming enthusiasm.
Seems there is a change in the winds.
Balance expert Fitter International showed its wares for the second year. Yoga specialist Hugger Mugger made its first showing. True offered a stretch session on one morning. BOSU, the half-ball balance item popular in clubs, had a booth for the first time. We even heard of a couple of mainstream companies (off the record, of course) tell us they are developing additional product in the areas of balance and stretch. All of these non-steel and non-iron booths seemed pretty busy, and representatives SNEWS talked to told us they were pleased with the response and see a formerly hesitant interest among specialty fitness retailers growing and strengthening.
"Everyone seemed more knowledgeable" than last year, said Lindsey Smith, senior sales representative for Fitter International, which set up shop for the second year. "They understood where the trends were going. They were more educated. I think the functional accessories were embraced more than the 'hall of steel.'
"This was a new feel for retailers," Smith added, "and they were excited to see this."
We heard some retailers asking open-ended questions about the need to begin to incorporate more wellness, lifestyle or "softer" products into their stores, including balance boards, yoga sticky mats, Pilates accessories or stretching tools. This trend, still growing strongly among consumers, is partly based on the specialty dealers' need to find additional ways to keep customers coming to them rather than to sporting goods stores.
Rodger Lee, president of yoga company Hugger Mugger, came to the fitness show for the first time, and compared his experience to his first-time booth last year at the Outdoor Retailer show -- lots of questions, enough interest for him to feel his time was worthwhile, and thought-provoking conversations.
"A lot of people stopping and staring," he said, with a bit of a chuckle.
But at his second outdoor show a week after the fitness expo, Lee was suddenly swamped as retailers who had thought about the softer side for a year, had watched the trend, and had now decided they wanted in. Lee said he expects the same in the fitness market, especially considering a lengthy meeting with The Fitness Experience chain that expects to bring his product into all of its stores. If one of the largest specialty retailers takes the step, others will too, he expects.
Fitter did say that traffic was quite steady, with retailers telling them their customers were asking for balance boards and other related products.
"They said, 'they saw us here last here and they have been considering our line'" since then, Smith said.
SNEWS View: We fully expect with the shift toward an entire picture of wellness that more and more retailers will get with the program and not only begin to offer these kinds of products, but will also educate their staff to sell them. Heck, a balance product can be a great add-on sale to that piece of steel to be used as cool down, warm up or as complementary exercise. That also goes for yoga sticky mats, blocks and other accessories such as Chi Balls, Pilates rings and BOSU balls. Embracing the broader definition of fitness will mean a better picture for survival and success for fitness retailers, as well as for those manufacturers that make the investment to present -- authentically -- this kind of product to them.