Launched suddenly and unannounced in late February was a website that said it's all about helping consumers purchase quality equipment wisely, directing them to specialty fitness dealers, and rating those dealers.
SNEWS® received word of the website, www.bestfitnessdealers.com, in a short email the evening of Feb. 27 that said only, "I will remain anonymous because this can affect my company. But I thought it was about time. Fire is fought best with fire. This fire has more credibility," with the URL in the subject line. Then a retailer emailed us Feb. 29, noting he had received an email Feb. 28 from an unnamed person at the site noting his store was being added as a "recommended dealer." Numerous others that SNEWS® has spoken to or emailed with had no clue about the site until directed to the URL by SNEWS®.
Generally, reactions are cautious, even optimistic, but not negative.
"From all appearances, the general concept behind this new website is not a bad one -- to direct consumers to good specialty dealers and quality equipment," said Scott Logan, marketing director for SportsArt Fitness, which has dealers listed on the site. "Nevertheless, its sudden birth took us all be surprise. We'd certainly prefer to know who is behind this although the initial research we've done indicates that it seems to be on the up-and-up."
On the home page, Best Fitness Dealers reports it was created to end consumer confusion, especially when so many websites are less about true ratings as they are garnering affiliate fees. Although there is no telephone number or address available and only a vague firstname.lastname@example.org email to contact, the site claims it is being done by "a group of manufacturers." It calls itself the "start of the solution."
"This site was started not to sell fitness equipment by any means," the site reads. "We are not interested in that portion of the transaction. We are fitness manufacturers that sell to almost everyone that has a retail store in the USA and Canada. So we have come together to report on our dealer network. To rate each and every dealer."
In a brief email exchange, the Best Fitness Dealers representative told SNEWS® he or she would divulge who is behind the site "once we get some more manufacturers on board."
"This will be a site that will develop over time," the person wrote in the email to SNEWS®, "but there is a mandate (a mission) to try and make a change."
Chip Hunnings, owner of the All About Fitness/Lifestyle Fitness group in Kansas and North Carolina, said after poking around that it seemed to represent specialty dealers pretty well.
"I liked the way they seem to be doing things," Hunnings told SNEWS®, although he wonders about how a site allegedly run by manufacturers could truly be neutral. The site also responded to one request from him for a couple of changes to his listings based on information he provided, but not to another.
"Still, I don't get why they are hiding, why they are not saying who they are," he said.
One dealer in Canada, Rick Couture of Go-Mango Fitness, told SNEWS®, "While I applaud this person's efforts and passion,…I offer my support and constructive advice -- a good start might be allowing someone to proofread his site for grammatical errors and such."
Couture added that he would hate to see the efforts be discouraged since it is a step in the right direction.
The Best Fitness Dealers contact told SNEWS® the website was only one small step: "If this can start a catalyst of change along with other positive moves that are entirely in the hands of the dealers to save their own industry then it was a good thing to do." The contact emphasized that remaining anonymous "for now" was in everybody's best interests.
In researching Internet records, the person or people behind the site have made an huge effort to remain masked. The website registration shows the URL was only created Feb. 19 but registrant name and contact information is unlisted and private. Based on preliminary research, the site is hosted on Yahoo, which helps it to remain private among a sea of other sites.
The site includes a Google map showing cities and store locations marked by pins. (Click here to see that.) When somebody clicks on a pin, a mini-review of the store pops up with a rating. The site says it based its ratings on how long a store has been in business, its selection of products, overall service competence, its ability to pay vendors and if it has any "past issues."
It goes on to explain its rating system:
"We will post using a rating system based on stars. A 4 **** Star rating is the best, a 3 *** Star rating is a good dealer and we still recommend them but there are issues why they are a 3 Star which will be in the rating. A 2 ** Star rating is a so-so dealer. There are issues, they may still be a decent dealer but you will see the issue in the rating why they are only at 2 Stars. A 1 * Star dealer has to be watched. Maybe it is because they are too new, under capitalized, too small or other. Again we will list the reason. A 0 Star is a DO NOT buy from this dealer. One dealer where we had too many complaints.
"We do not take this lightly. All reporting is verified and agreed upon and this is not a personal vendetta site."
So far it seems almost all of the stores have three- or four-star ratings, except one we noted with two stars that has not been in business as long as others, and another that had a red warning. We have been told by several subscribers the store, which began only on the Internet a number of years ago, has some problems with several manufacturers.
SNEWS® would love to hear your thoughts. You can post them below in the SNEWS® chat.
SNEWS® View: We don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. As folks have said, the intent to sort through the noise for consumers is not a bad one, as is the effort to get folks to specialty or quality dealers. This kind of site could in the end serve some purpose, especially in doing battle with websites that link to where a consumer can buy product only because it gains them affiliate fees. There are two things that we and others raise an eyebrow about, both of which could be easily remedied:
>> Hiding behind a website without contact information or names leaves folks suspicious or even intimidated. We know retailers who are afraid to say a word for fear of retribution by an unnamed manufacturer, perhaps one of theirs, who may be behind the site. Unmasking should be done ASAP.
>> Despite taglines, the site in the end is a review site of stores. Yet if you read through the pages, you see it calls itself the "Fitness Dealers and Manufacturers Association" or FDMA. There is no association here. There is no membership. There are no boards or directors. There is, from all appearances, one manufacturer trying to create some education and direction for consumers. That is not bad, but it's not an association. According to the IRS, an association is "a group of persons banded together for a specific purpose." From our brief email interaction, it would seem this is not a group banding together but only a few -- or perhaps only one person -- creating his or her own system.
Something like this could work but it likely needs to come from a truly neutral source, like an association. We would like to suggest that the efforts SNEWS® is facilitating to help the industry come together and collaborate -- perhaps eventually establishing an association -- would be a better umbrella for this kind of campaign.
To read more about the collaboration efforts, click here. A casual first gathering of interested fitness industry professionals will be held the morning of March 6 near the convention center where the IHRSA show is being held in San Diego. If you are interested in attending or receiving more information, email IWantIn@snewsnet.com.