Continuing its tradition in tackling hard topics and facilitating open discussion in the industry, the 4th annual SNEWS® Fitness Forum at the Health & Fitness Business Expo focused on the need for fitness industry collaboration as a way to help it move ahead and grow -- a seemingly hot topic in the industry that is faced with a slowing economy and stalled sales.
"We need to bring the industry together to grow the entire pie for everyone," Therese Iknoian, SNEWS editor in chief and the panel's moderator, told attendees at the forum the second morning of the show. "The long-term growth has to come from the industry."
The forum held pre-show on the second day July 18 hosted retailers, manufacturers and industry consultants alike who were interested in the idea of some kind of fitness industry association that could represent their interests.
“It helps us raise our game and bring more customers to our area,” said panelist John O’Neill, owner of the Colorado Running Company and a board member of the fledgling Independent Running Retailers Association.
The topic is not a new one for SNEWS, which wrote about it in the first edition of the GearTrends® magazine in 2003 (called SNEWS magazine as of summer 2008). At the time, though, it never received the groundswell of support that it has in recent months following a guest editorial written by former longtime industry executive Steve Lindenau in SNEWS that returned the topic to the front burner and received more vociferous response.
Following the outpouring of letters, emails and calls to SNEWS and Lindenau in response to the editorial, a group of 16 fitness industry professionals met in early March at the IHRSA show to talk about what the industry could or should do to start the ball rolling on some kind of movement to collaborate and communicate.
SNEWS continued to champion the cause at the Health & Fitness Business Expo and brought together a panel of four experts from various industries -- including bike, outdoor and running -- to share their experiences of launching and fostering collaborative industry groups.
Panelists share their experiences
>> Tim Blumenthal, executive director of Bikes Belong, opened the panelist comments by sharing the climate of the bike industry in the late '90s, describing it as a cutthroat environment among competitors with little community and fraught with conflict.
"We had two choices: fight to the death for the same small pie or grow the pie," he said.
Setting aside their animosity, various industry leaders -- large and small, manufacturer and retailer -- started Bikes Belong (www.bikesbelong.org) to rally around the Federal Transportation Bill, the largest source of U.S. bicycle facility funding, to maximize federal funding for bicycling with the goal of putting more people on bicycles more often.
Today, the organization has expanded beyond federal policy and funding to include national partnerships, community grants and bicycle promotion, and has a $2 million annual operating budget.
>> O'Neill, of the Independent Running Retailers Association (IRRA, www.theirra.com), shared his experiences with the organization, which was founded just over two years ago.
Speaking from a retailer's point of view, O'Neill said, "We needed to form our own organization to share ideas; not to be exclusive, but to be inclusive. I hope no one out there is afraid to admit they don't know it all. When you admit that is when you start learning."
Funded by member dues, IRRA works with vendors to reduce shipping costs and closeouts, and get better credit card rates, as well as other services.
>> Kim Coupounas, co-founder of the GoLite apparel and equipment company, is a past chair of Outdoor Industry Association (OIA, www.outdoorindustry.org), an organization launched in 1989 that represents about 4,000 retailers, manufacturers and distributors.
"We had a lot of common interests and shared the common goal of growing our industry," she noted, adding that OIA has been active in trade and environmental lobbying, offers sales trend research and educational toolkits, as well as a wide range of member benefits and discounts.
She said that all channels are represented in the group and on the board, as well as companies big and small: “Although we are competitors, there’s a lot we can share and we need to focus on that as a whole. I can’t tell you how important it is and has been for our industry’s growth to collaborate.”
>> Paul Crimmins, operations director of retailer BGI Fitness, shared his member experience with The Biking Solution (www.thebikingsolution.com), an organization that offers retail services support to over 300 independent retailers around the country. The Biking Solution's parent organization, CCA Global, collectively leverages the strength of its various retail groups (including flooring and lighting retailers through the parent group – www.ccaglobal.com) for buying power and collaborative marketing and advertising.
"As a little retailer, there is not a lot of negotiation we can do, but now we've joined this organization with 10,000 doors out there and growing all the time," he said. "Our competition is not each other. It's Best Buy, Circuit City and Xbox. We're making ourselves stronger to compete. One of the things we worry about is the bottom line and this helps to grow our bottom line."
Resources that CCA Global has given The Biking Solution include better financing rates, lower credit card rates, sales training, customized advertising and various discounts. "We're always watching how we spend our money. We look at everything to help the bottom line," Crimmins added.
Tips to creating a unified voice
Panelists also shared their experiences of collaborating with competitors, weighed in on an industry's longevity without an association, and shared the merits of focusing on a structured agenda.
Coupounas said of working elbow-to-elbow with her competitors at OIA: "Over time, when you start collaborating and seeing the results of that collaboration in your industry, those barriers come down. You see it as like-minded people in the same room, looking to grow your industry."
Blumenthal added of the 18 or so CEOs involved with Bikes Belong: "As time goes by, their outlook on their business and their personal worth becomes broader. They're definitely interested in not only making money, but also making a contribution to society. There is a commonality, there is a bigger picture -- and that is a great unifier."
"Change your attitude," O'Neill said. "You need to look at yourself; you need to look at them as partners, not as competition."
Crimmins added, "There's enough business. I think it helps us when we help each other."
Iknoian posed the question, "Can an industry remain healthy without collaboration?"
"I can't imagine what the bike industry would be like if we hadn't changed," Blumenthal said. "I feel like we're just getting started. In 10 years, we've made a lot of progress. But if we were still isolated islands at each other's throats, we'd be in big trouble."
O'Neill pointed out how IRRA's resources, such as sales reports from Leisure Trends, have benefited his retail business.
"I use the Leisure Trends reports to see what is selling nationwide and in my region, and identify what are the top-selling products I need to have in my store," he said. "It's another way an independent group can see what's going on. If this is happening nationwide, it should be happening in my area. It's a great tool."
Both Coupounas and Blumenthal emphasized that an organization needs to concentrate on a handful of key issues each year. While their groups are approached constantly with great ideas, they insist the organization must maintain a focus.
"We get calls all the time from people who are not happy we aren't focusing on their particular issue. You have to stay focused on the issues that will help the long-term goals of the industry. And it means having a strong board to focus on the issues," Coupounas said.
SNEWS® View: A wonderful panel with movers-and-shakers from other industries had 75 minutes of great insights and advice. We at SNEWS hope this will be but a stepping stone to something tangible and it will be the first step toward industry members realizing they can indeed work together to help the industry as a whole in a way that could drive more consumers to fitness. And we hope the industry can understand they can be partners with each other and share knowledge without such an opportunity meaning sharing proprietary research or information. Although some manufacturers may feel they are only there for “their” retailers, in fact all retailers need the help of a broader group and could benefit from broader visions that only such an association could bring.