Guest Editorial: What’s next for the specialty fitness retail industry?

Sanford Stein, president of the 29-year-old STEIN LLC retail planning and design firm, points out where the specialty fitness retail industry has stumbled and offers perspective on its future in this guest editorial.
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SNEWS has done an excellent job of chronicling some of the specialty fitness retail industry’s recent challenges, which coincided with the worst economic slowdown in modern retail history. There are a myriad of reasons for this industry sector unwinding, some of which were mentioned in two February 2010 articles (click here to see Part 1 and here to see Part 2 of SNEWS stories about the Busy Body/FHI bankruptcy past and present). They include cheap money, indiscriminate dealer expansion and economic chaos. While I agree these elements have all been contributing factors to the inelegant reversals of some key industry players, I believe one must look a bit harder to find the root cause, as well as to gain some insights for a successful rebirth of specialty fitness retailing.

Like most other businesses in the 21st century, retailing has become increasingly complex. What worked in the latter half of the 20th century is simply not good enough in a time of increased competition due to a more demanding and sophisticated consumer, and the impact of the Internet on consumer behavior -- to name just two key factors. Simply put, the days of having the right product at the right price and screaming about it are over.

Today’s retailers must execute at a very high level across many brand touch-points to achieve the desired end-to-end retail experience that customers demand and have come to expect among state-of-the-art retailers. These factors include:

>> pre-shop - the online experience

>> shop - the ease, enjoyment and relevancy of the in-store brand experience

>> purchase - the ease of the transaction

>> post purchase – the satisfaction of expectations

A recently published study conducted by the Verde Group in association with the Wharton School of Business informed us that one of these four factors is both more important to consumers and, coincidentally, less frequently experienced by them: the in-store brand experience.

It has also been my own personal experience that many specialty fitness equipment retailers have clearly and consistently fallen short in this critical consumer-centric area.

Ironically, in a series of dealer interviews on behalf of my client Life Fitness, these very same specialty retailers hit on most of the frequently occurring challenge areas related to the overall poor customer experience.

Over-focused on price

They pointed to the fact their stores were often perceived as too macho or female-unfriendly. Additionally, they lacked critical information on features and benefits necessary to empower the consumer and to guide assisted product selection. I found their stores were often over-stocked, crowded and difficult-to-negotiate. Also, these dealerships seemed compelled to offer seemingly endless brand choice, which is often overwhelming and is a proven impediment to sale. In many of these stores, price appears to be the only product differentiator -- which invariably leads to brand commoditization and market irrelevance.

Study after study tells us that price is the fourth, fifth or sixth most important factor in the selection of fitness equipment by consumers, but all too often that appears to remain the industry’s main focus. Regrettably, in nearly every retail category, there are similar stories of retailers attempting to succeed by underselling the competition and the result is their own marginalization -- and their own undoing.

It is most unfortunate that there have been a number of regional and national specialty fitness retailers who succumbed to this horrendous economy, causing pain and loss to many. However, in contrast to the notion that only small “mom and pops” can survive long term, I would argue that there is nothing inherent in this category that would prevent a well-defined and -executed specialty fitness retail concept to emerge, grow and prosper regionally or nationally. Consumer trending is on our side.

Renaissance of fitness equipment retailing

We have reached a time when the public’s attention is focused like never before on the failure of the healthcare system. We know that obesity has hit near crisis proportions and disease prevention appears to be the only factor in the healthcare debate that receives unanimous support. Businesses, school districts, healthcare providers and the media are shining a light on the benefits of rigorous and regular exercise to reverse the damaging effects of an increasingly sedentary society. I personally believe that we are entering what is likely to be remembered as the renaissance of fitness equipment retailing.

I predict that in the future we will witness the launch of a “defining brand” in specialty fitness retailing that connects on each and every brand touchpoint, resulting in a highly valued consumer brand and in-store customer experience. This consumer-centric brand will focus on lifestyle, fitness, wellness and disease prevention with uplifting retail environments that are female-friendly, empowering to the consumer, and fun and easy to shop. They will feature cardio and strength training equipment, accessories and product intelligence, supplements and highly trained personnel. Everything from the real estate selection to brand identity, from store and web design to marketing and social media planning, will be developed holistically, and executed with great care and financial prudence. These stores will become frequent destinations for a diverse audience including Millennials, Generation Ys and Xers, and Boomers alike.

This is a defining moment for the fitness industry, and specialty fitness retailing in particular. While most players are hunkered down waiting for the market to turn, it is time for an insightful group to seize the opportunity and to write the next chapter in specialty fitness retailing.

--Sanford Stein


Sanford Stein is the president and design director of STEIN LLC, a 29-year-old Minneapolis-based retail planning and design firm. Sandy (sstein@steinllc.com) was a guest panelist at the 2009 Health & Fitness Business Expo focusing on the customer experience in specialty fitness retailing. (Click here to see an Aug. 21, 2009, SNEWS story about that panel and here to listen to a recording of the hour-long discussion.) The firm’s work can be seen at www.steinllc.com.

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