H&F Biz show '04 -- Stretch, balance, mind-body

Companies whose focus, formerly, had been items like resistance bands or weight-lifting accessories (gloves, belts, etc.) had booths full of balance and stretching accessories, too.

Companies whose focus, formerly, had been items like resistance bands or weight-lifting accessories (gloves, belts, etc.) had booths full of balance and stretching accessories, too.

Unfortunately, a couple of companies that specialize in mind-body products such as yoga mats and Pilates balls were MIA, one being long-time sticky mat king Hugger Mugger, which has been a HFB show exhibitor for the last few years. We found out after the show that the decision not to be at the Denver show was made before a recent change in management and the company will return next year since it feels the specialty fitness market is important.

Yoga mats and blocks seem to be a dime-a-dozen these days, so demand for those had slowed for a few companies, and to get a price for a quality one, a retailer will have to demonstrate true value and special benefits beyond cheaper ones at discounters. But the category maintained its equilibrium because, as John Wolf of Altus Athletics said, "People are still realizing that you have to stretch."

In the second-annual SNEWS® survey of fitness specialty retailers (published in our August 2004 GearTrends fitness magazine -- if you missed it, the magazine is now available free of charge in PDF format at www.geartrends.com), we found the percent of sales in accessories was all over the board, with some telling us it was as high as 15 percent to 20 percent and others as low as a great big goose egg. The ones who were selling the small stuff were also selling things like balance boards, stretch straps and yoga mats.

We'll take a quick skim, below, of a few highlights in the stretch, balance and mind-body areas. Remember to see our Aug. 30 story on general accessories in this News Digest ("Accessories in gear with stability balls, new stuff at H&F Biz show"). Our post-show overview story with numbers, news nuggets and brief summaries of a few events and parties ran Aug. 23 ("HF Biz show buyer numbers steady, exhibitors up"). But that's not all. We still have several category reports coming. (Now, don't get yourself all tied in knots; we have a big cardio story and a large separate strength story still coming, as well as a several other show stories, all in the next couple of weeks.) We're sure you've noticed that the SNEWS® team brings complete show coverage that not only includes category reports and news, but also the other good stuff about trends, parties, workshops and events. As is our tradition, you won't find more complete or more accurate coverage anywhere else. Stay tuned…

BOSU -- This company's product, short for "both sides up," made its retail debut last year and this year the booth was consistently full of people bobbling and bouncing on the half-round balls. Fun stuff to get on and play with always attracts those looking for a giggle and a challenge and the BOSU is no different. It just BEGS to be climbed aboard and wobbled on. The company mentioned it now had a line of videos and DVDs focused on specific conditioning activities for football, tennis or baseball players. They all retail for $15 and require an additional purchase of weighted balls and resistance tubes.

FitBall -- FitBall began about 15 years ago as a company that focused on physical therapy, and its original Gymnic ball developed and used strictly as a rehabilitation tool has practically taken over at fitness specialty. Retailers have told us they can hardly keep them in stock. With the expansion of balance and core-strengthening exercises, FitBall has introduced balls of different sizes, as well as a slew of other products in the balance/stretch category. Its newest product is the FitBall Sport, which is much firmer than the original Gymnic Ball so balancing is more of a challenge. It supports up to 600 pounds and is -- we are glad to hear -- burst-resistant (list: $20). "People are realizing more and more the importance of core exercises," John Butler said. "This ball takes balancing to the next level."

Fitter International -- Fitter's wobbling, weebling and rocking was a presence again this year, although there weren't many new products to be found. The company did introduce a Combobble Board, a slight twist on the wobble and rocker boards. It's a mix of both that tilts in every direction and is shaped like a big skateboard (list: $70). The booth was busy with curious folks looking to get on the wobble boards -- another playground of a booth that just begs for people to put down their bags and jump on. "Acceptance for our type of product has been getting better and better," Bill Robson said.

Gripitz -- A brand new product and new company for the show, not to mention the only yoga-specific company, Gripitz are modified yoga blocks invented by Richard Edwards. Edwards invented the product about 2.5 years ago when an injury prevented him from practicing yoga. The product (list: $40) looks kind of like a set of barbells with square ends. It's the same shape and size as a traditional yoga block, but instead of being solid, the centers have been replaced by a cushioned bar. Instead of placing your palm flat with a 90-degree wrist (which can cause some people pain and stress), you hold onto the bar and your wrist remains in a straight, neutral position -- much like pushup bars do for your wrists. "Reaction has been tremendous," Edwards said. "With the growth in yoga and Pilates, people need a product like this."

Lifespan by PCE Fitness -- Traditionally known for its treadmills and other equipment, PCE rolled out its Stretch Partner -- a small chair-sized, non-motorized, non-technical device for helping someone get motivated to stretch and to stretch correctly. The front bar is flexible so you can pull and push on it as you hold it and sit or lean on the seat part. "Keep it simple," was the goal, said PCE Sales Director Bobby Krause. It has wheels so it can roll easily and a thorough instruction flipchart on the product for easy reference while stretching (and it refers to body parts as real people do e.g. back, arms, and legs, rather than in kinesiological terms). There is also a 23-minute DVD or video that someone can learn from or use as a workout, also delightfully done in consumer-speak. List: $500.

Sissel Inc. -- A company with a diverse set of products -- from exercise balls to inversion tables to the new Wall Bar (a ladder-like unit that attaches to a wall for strength and stretching exercises, with a list of $400) -- Sissel Inc. has operated worldwide since 1987. Most of the items in the booth were small, i.e., a lot of exercise and medicine balls, weighted bars, and a couple of wobble boards. A new product was the X-Treme Ball (list: $150) that is firmer than others and, again, "burst-resistant." Sissel's version is made of synthetic leather and is stitched like a soccer ball. The price difference seems a bit surprising, but our only guess is that Sissel is charging more because the ball is designed as a replacement for a weight bench and can support up to 3,000 pounds. Yee-ow!


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