Dick's Sporting Goods adds fitness trainers to store staff

With an eye on competing better with its specialty rivals, Dick's Sporting Goods will soon have a salesperson in every store's fitness department who has completed a personal trainer certification course.
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With an eye on competing better with its specialty rivals, Dick's Sporting Goods will soon have a salesperson in every store's fitness department who has completed a personal trainer certification course.

Store management told SNEWS® the trainer program -- an attempt to emulate the success of its golf pro program -- would deepen expertise offered customers and would go beyond what is normally expected from a full-line sporting goods store.

The move appears to make Dick's (NYSE: DKS) the first big-box sports store to bring some formal certification to its fitness department staff. This program will train store staff with a two-day weekend training workshop that concludes with a test.

With the fitness trainer program, Dick's hopes to pump up sales and profits in its fitness departments as it did in its golf departments when it implemented a program with the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) in the late 1990s that put a pro in every store. Store executives declined to say exactly how profitable the golf pros have been for golf sales for the Pittsburgh-based chain of 142 stores.

The fitness trainers are already in 22 stores, with the remaining 142 expected by mid-year, Jeff Hennion, Dick's senior vice president of strategic planning, told SNEWS®. He declined to specify which stores already had trainers and when exactly the others would add them.

As it makes an effort to bump up its in-house savvy, Dick's, which operates in 22 states, is also adding to its product line -- apparently acknowledging that both products and staff knowledge were due for a retooling. Although the company also wouldn't name brands it would be adding or confirm ones it carries, Hennion did say the chain plans to expand the upper end of its product line so it can compete with fitness specialty stores, but it will not add additional floor space.

"The fitness area is getting complex enough that it's important to have someone who can understand the customer's needs," Hennion said.

Currently, Dick's cardiovascular equipment offerings include, according to its website, ProForm, Star Trac, Reebok, Schwinn, Phoenix, Spartan, Keys Fitness, Fitness Quest and Stamina. In the home gym and strength-training arenas, Dick's carries Weider, Universal and Bowflex, in addition to strength products from some of the companies that also sell cardiovascular equipment at the chain. In addition, Dick's has its own private-label brand of fitness equipment called Fitness Gear. As Dick's has stated in past financial presentations, the private-label arena is one the company will be pumping up.

Although specialty retailers may snub their nose at a two-day training that is called a certification -- some specialty store staff have weeks or even years of higher education -- the move still means they will still have to keep an eye out since customers don't always know the difference between various certifications, what they require, or why some equipment costs more than others.

"In general, it's a concern from a competition standpoint because they're big, and they have a lot of customers and it means they're focusing on fitness equipment," said James Bond, the director of retail for Delaware-based specialty retailer Leisure Fitness, which competes with Dick's in most of its 11 locations from Virginia to New Jersey.

On the other hand, Bond said, Leisure Fitness isn't worried about competing in quality or variety with Dick's, since he said he felt the equipment carried by the sporting goods chain is significantly lower in quality than his or that at other specialty retailers.

"They don't have a product line of a quality that most personal trainers I know would be comfortable with," said Bond. "In fitness, they don't have the top manufacturers. They have what's left."

When Dick's decided to up the ante in its golf department, it single-handedly boosted the career prospects of PGA golf pros, SNEWS was told. Overnight, Hennion said, Dick's became the second-largest employer of such pros in the country after country-club operator ClubCorp USA. Hennion said that taking the fitness certification could mean a raise or promotion for a staff member since that person may become department manager as a result, as happened with some of the golf pros.

Dick's trainers will be trained by a group called the International Fitness Professionals Association (www.ifpa-fitness.com), which offers a two-day seminar that results in what it calls a certification. To graduate, trainers take a 100-question multiple-choice test and a 30-question written exam from the 10-year-old group.

In comparison, the non-profit American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) requires a health-related bachelor's degree and experience in the field and offers a three-day seminar, a 115-question test and an hour-long practical exam that asks participants to administer testing in a mock set-up. The non-profit National Sports & Conditioning Association (NSCA) has 11 two-hour symposia and a 140-question multiple-choice exam. And the non-profit American Council on Exercise (ACE) has a two-day seminar and a 150-question multiple-choice exam. ACSM, NSCA and ACE all require a CPR certification, which IFPA does not. Combining some practical with its weekend course, the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) requires a two-day course for a personal trainer certification, and then participants must pass a 100-question multiple-choice exam and outline a program for a case study. Taking both online, NASM candidates have 90 minutes to answer the 100 questions and 24 hours to complete the case study.

Dick's isn't the only company in the field to raise the bar on fitness staff training. This year, Leisure Fitness will also require its entire sales staff to complete a specialized fitness certification, Bond said. Plus, The Fitness Experience began requiring training for all its staff last year, while other retailers may have on staff not only trained trainers but may also have some who are physical therapists or have master's degrees in exercise physiology or related topics.

Unlike the PGA golf pros who spend years earning the title, Dick's trainers aren't required to have any real-world training experience. Dick's will allow staff trainers to sell personal training to customers for a fee as it allows the golf pros to do.

Dick's doesn't expect the trainers to bring a PGA-level depth of knowledge, Hennion said, but expects they will create more sales. Dick's doesn't have plans to bring such specialty training to any other departments, he said.

"It's kind of hard because there's nothing that's comparable to a card-carrying PGA pro," Hennion said. But, he added, the trainers are "a strong step forward in terms of expanding what we know."

SNEWS® View: This is a move that makes a laudable attempt to create credibility among staff members selling fitness equipment. Unfortunately, the attempt to create alleged credibility may only pull the wool over customers' eyes. Calling someone a trainer and allowing them to sell personal training after two days of courses and a multiple-choice test is not only an embarrassment, but also a liability. We're not sure if Dick's has thought this through completely. No trainer after two days can know enough to create programs and train clients of all levels and background safely or confidently. Heck, even trainers with years of experience and degrees face the possibility of mistakes and constantly take refresher courses and continuing education that not only include kinesiology and physiology, but also cover business and legal issues. Dick's is correct in that there is no one "card-carrying" trainer organization it can turn to and that complicates matters for the store since it does seem to seek credibility and respect. (That's the part we applaud.) Really good trainers are usually pretty busy with their own business or at a health club. Or both. Whether this will result in greater sales or happier customers is unknown. What we do know is that it will create a bit of a stir once again among those who yell and scream that a two-day class is not a certification (they're correct) and doesn't result in a certification; it in fact is only a training that gives someone a certificate that says they took it and passed a test. No more, no less. The bottom line: To call yourself certified after two days is an abomination.

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