Cheap Treadmills Run Up Higher Sales in 2001

A national survey just out shows lower-priced treadmills took a huge lead over mid- to higher-priced models last year, with treadmills priced from $300-399 ringing up nearly 60 percent more sales compared to the previous year and a larger percentage of sales falling to mass merchants.
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A national survey just out shows lower-priced treadmills took a huge lead over mid- to higher-priced models last year, with treadmills priced from $300-399 ringing up nearly 60 percent more sales compared to the previous year and a larger percentage of sales falling to mass merchants.

The data was pulled from the results of a nationwide questionnaire sent to 40,000 U.S. households by research company NFO (National Family Opinion), which was returned by two of three recipients, according to Larry Weindruch of the National Sporting Goods Association, which covers the details of the report in its new "Brand Share Study." Participants, balanced for the U.S. population, fill in the answers over a period of time about what they buy, where, for whom, and the cost, as well as the age and gender of both user and purchaser and other details.

A jump in sales of low-end models doesn't necessarily worry Precor's sales manager, Tim Bowen, who oversees the company's new line of three higher-end treadmills for the home -- which start at a suggested retail of $3,499 and climbs to $5,199.

"We need a lot of $399 treadmills bought. We need customers who have these bad experiences," Bowen told SNEWS. "We need to let them get through this experience. Then, the second time around, they want better quality.

"Although it's a scary trend," Bowen said, "it bodes well for the higher-end to get this new entry into the market."

Bowen also points out that the fitness industry is relatively young -- only about two decades -- and sales at these lower prices could indicate more people listening to the fitness message and taking that first step.

The survey's price ranges are compressed to the low end -- $299 and less, $300-399, $400-499, $500-699, and $700 and up. Those sold in the $300 range jumped from 9.4 percent of the total to 15 percent. The only other category that had a significant change was the "high-end" area with total sales there accounting for 27.1 percent compared to 35.2 percent the previous year. Weindruch told SNEWS that 12 percent of that 27.1 had price tags of $900 or more.

Purchases of treadmills sold in the $500-699 range accounted for 27.95 percent of sales, up only slightly from 25.9 percent. Those in the $400-499 range accounted for 15 percent of all sales, up a mere .6 percent over the previous year. Sales in the lowest category were stable, only dropping .1 to 15 percent.

Although some may raise an eyebrow at such low price categories, NFO research relies on voluntary questionnaire returns and those who earn more money and are therefore more likely to buy treadmills that cost $1,500 and up are less likely to complete and return the forms, Weindruch said.

"That could tend to underreport the higher-end sales," Weindruch said, which in turn could serve to underreport sales at specialty shops. This research showed consumers purchased only about a third as many treadmills at specialty shops in 2001 compared to 2000 (5 percent compared to 14.5 percent), while sales at mass merchants went from 67.1 percent to 76.2 percent, an increase of more than 13 percent.

Matt Elmborg, vice president of sales for Horizon Fitness, says he's seen the company's sales at full-line sporting goods stores, such as The Sports Authority or Galyan's, doing best in the $599-800 range. Although $599 is still the No. 1 volume area, he said those dealers are seeing more customers leaning toward $799 models. At its specialty retailers, where the company has been selling for less than two years, the $700 and up price range is "most favored." Elmborg did say Horizon's specialty retailers are saying that average price points sold have been dropping slightly.

"We feel that you can't make a quality product at $399," said Elmborg, whose Horizon line starts at a suggested retail of $699 (which goes on sale for $599) and tops out at $1,499.

Sportcraft, which brought its first and only treadmill onto the market late last year for $399, is one company reaping rewards from the averages. Senior product manager Mark Schulz says with the growth in popularity of treadmill exercise, that even those who can't afford $1,000 -- at least to start -- still want one. That's where the Sportcraft model, sold only at select Walmarts, fits in, and sales have been doing well, he told SNEWS.

The problem that Bowen sees is that many newcomers to fitness equipment purchases have no idea where to shop, which is why they end up at the Walmarts of the world instead of a specialty dealer where he's convinced they'd end up spending more because of the education they'd receive. But after what he assumes will be an unpleasant experience with a cheap treadmill, that customer will move up not only in price but also in purchase location.

"This represents a huge future business for the specialty fitness market," Bowen said.

SNEWS View: With the price for a decent quality treadmill dropping to nearly $1,000, it's not surprising that more are appearing on the market for half that -- and less. And that they're being bought. Fitness manufacturers should probably think about doing more marketing and advertising that actually educates consumers about their choice in what is truly an investment, rather than fluffy promo that simply advocates Company X equipment for (generically) getting in shape. That's not to say that really low-end models can't deliver for the right user (perhaps a slow to moderate walker or slow jogger who is of moderate height). In this case, something may be better than nothing if it's going to help someone fit exercise into his or her life. In addition, fitness is a young industry, so consumers just don't know what to look for, why, or where to go. Say "specialty fitness retailer" and they'll mostly look at you dazed as if you're speaking a foreign language. So the education needs to encompass what that is, why it may be a better shopping venue, and where to find one (in the Yellow Pages under fitness equipment usually) -- if that's the choice for that consumer.

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