Ask Bruce VanDyke if he'd ever consider settling down and opening up a nice little retail store somewhere to sell his backyard swings and home gyms, and there's not a moment of hesitation:
"Never," said VanDyke, a distributor for Sunset Swings and Inspire gyms. "No retail."
Instead, VanDyke and his wife, Mary, work a year-round circuit of fairs and home-and-garden shows. Their travels take them to the Pacific Northwest, the desert Southwest, the Deep South and all across their home state of California. They set up shop for two to three weeks at a time, and then move on.
"When we're off, we're just off," he said. "And we don't have any overhead."
VanDyke acknowledges it's a salesman's life that wouldn't work for everyone, although with today’s deepening retail woes it keeps him one step ahead of some brick-and-mortar stores that are suffering. And in an economy where consumers' paychecks are getting eaten up by rising costs of gasoline, groceries and housing, VanDyke said sales of swings and the home gyms he added as a complementary line are outperforming last year's pace.
As fitness retailers and manufacturers look for non-traditional ways to reach new customers, some, like VanDyke, are looking beyond a store's four walls -- and outpacing sales by many still inside four walls. State and county fairs, rodeos, furniture stores and weekend home-and-garden expos are one option for those who don't mind the constant set-up and tear-down. Now there’s also a new option emerging that aims to take the best of the traveling home-and-garden show and give it a permanent home.
A handful of these year-round, expo-type showrooms have cropped up mostly around the western United States -- in California, Idaho, Utah and Arizona. Their aim is to create the perfect marriage between busy consumers who want to comparison shop under one roof, and businesses looking for a more cost-effective way to market to them.
Owners of two of the more well-known permanent expo centers -- Home Show Daily (www.homeshowdaily.com) and Expo Daily (www.expo-daily.com) -- say the fitness industry has been slow to join the mix of exhibitors. The showrooms now are dominated by home construction vendors that sell garage doors, vinyl siding, roofing, floorings, concrete driveways, and outdoor gazebos and spas.
But Lynn Egen, who owns with her husband, Brett, the Expo Daily just east of Sacramento, Calif., in the burgeoning shopping and bedroom area of Roseville, said she sees "fitness being potentially a very big part of what we do." She doesn't have any fitness retailers, but said she hasn't actively pursued them either.
"So many people are incorporating workout rooms in their homes," Egen said. "It's very much a part of the housing industry. I could see it in a category with home entertainment and home theaters."
The concept for a year-round expo center seems to have its roots in New Zealand and Australia. Or, at least, that's the claim of original founders of Home Show Daily and Expo Daily, both of which hail from New Zealand. The showrooms typically are set up as warehouses in busy retail nodes, and many are open seven days a week. It's a relatively low-cost way to reach new markets. Advertising is shared among hundreds of vendors, and booths don't need to be staffed to be effective. The showrooms also are set up to appeal to a more affluent demographic than big-box retailers such as Lowe's and Home Depot.
Although sounding promising, the fitness-related businesses that have tried the still-new retail concept told SNEWS® that results have been mixed. Still, it's tough to tell whether that's a function of the sagging economy, a marketing channel that's not a good fit, not enough promotion, or a combination of all.
Steve Featherstone of Salt Lake City-based Champion Fitness, who set up a booth at the Salt Lake City Home Show Daily showroom last spring, said he's been disappointed so far. Most people are browsers, and not ready to buy, he said. And he's not sure home gyms fit in with the other products.
"People go in thinking about home improvement, and we kind of throw a curve ball at them," said Featherstone, who owns three Champion Fitness stores in Utah.
Featherstone said he added information in his booth about outdoor swings sold by one of his vendors, and said "that seems to fit better." Featherstone is the lone fitness retailer at Home Show Daily, and said he isn't sure the nearly $1,000 a month rent is worth it. He said he’s considering canceling when his yearlong contract expires.
Jim Sparling, who owns Home Show Daily, said he understands Featherstone's frustration, but noted recently he hoped he'd hang tight. Albeit before the sudden Dow and bank collapses in late September, Sparling said he believes the economic downturn will eventually become an upturn -- and already the Dow is trying, but recovery may take some fits and starts.
"It's a problem for everyone right now. Nobody wants to spend money, even on their homes," Sparling said. "But people coming through the doors are decent prospects. There are still people spending money out there, just not as much."
Even as consumers hold back on discretionary spending, both Home Show Daily and Expo Daily have their eyes on expansion: Home Show canceled plans for two stores in Arizona, but Sparling said he has signed a lease on a location in Portland, Ore. He's also exploring the Carolinas and Minnesota, he said. Expo Daily is pondering franchise possibilities and is looking at markets in Seattle, Wash.; San Diego, Calif.; the San Francisco Bay area; various cities in Florida; and Austin, Texas.
Jeanne Sheriff of HealthStyles Exercise Equipment in Glenwood Springs, Colo., hasn't tried the permanent expos, but said she's branched beyond state fairs this year as a way to find new markets: HealthStyles recently teamed with a builder to help sponsor a Parade of Homes tour, and the regional chain also participated in a women's expo although that brought limited success, Sheriff said, mainly because sales don't usually happen unless both decision-makers are present. Few husbands or male partners had tagged along to the women's expo. She's planning a home decorating show this fall.
"We're always looking for new ways to sell, or to show customers what we can do," she said.
Spicing up with special event offers -- such as free delivery or special pricing -- has proven successful, she said.
The permanent home shows offer other benefits although they don't come cheap (A 10-by-10 at the Home Show Daily costs about $800 a month, and at the Expo Daily rent goes for about $10 per square foot):
>> You might have competition, but not an abundance. Owners of Expo Daily and Home Show Daily limit the number of exhibitors per category to about three, so that consumers don't get overwhelmed and vendors still stand out.
>> You can use the showroom as a virtual office, with conference rooms and full-service offices available to meet customers.
>> Booths don't need to be staffed, saving you on overhead. Phones are set up in the booths, allowing shoppers to call you directly for price quotes and other information.
>> E-mail and phone information often is taken when folks enter the front door, saving you the hassle of getting follow-up information on potential buyers.
VanDyke, the dyed-in-the-wool traveling expo salesman, said he's heard about the permanent expo showrooms in California and said he'll likely look into it when the summer fair rush winds down. Meanwhile, he's pretty content staying his course.
"I'm committed," he said. "We do this every day, every weekend -- somewhere. And I love the product. That's the key."
SNEWS® View: Perhaps just as mall placements can be outreach and marketing, these sorts of placements could also sell enough to cover costs while also planting seeds in the minds of new audiences that may never happen into your store. SNEWS will continue to write about different venues that are possible and different retail concepts, particularly as retailers seek to reach out to potential new customers. If you have any information or have participated in a venue that has proved helpful, let us know.