Mike Connolly's The Fitness Store joins with Creative Playthings in new take on East Coast retail

A new fitness retail venture called The Fitness Store has been quietly brewing in the East and is set to debut in October. Spearheaded by Mike Connolly -- who had led The Fitness Group's move into Precor Home Fitness stores in the mid-Atlantic along with the changes at HEST and Texas Home Fitness -- the new business will be a retail combination of traditional fitness equipment with activity-oriented wooden swing sets and playground sets.
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A new fitness retail venture called The Fitness Store has been quietly brewing in the East and is set to debut in October.

Spearheaded by Mike Connolly -- who had led The Fitness Group's move into Precor Home Fitness stores in the mid-Atlantic along with the changes at HEST and Texas Home Fitness -- the new business will be a retail combination of traditional fitness equipment with activity-oriented wooden swing sets and playground sets.

Connolly, who is CEO and owner of the business dba The Fitness Store, has dubbed his company Creative Fitness as a complement to Creative Playthings, based in Framingham, Mass. (www.creativeplaythings.com), with which he is cooperating on the venture.

"It's the perfect scenario. With this, you don't lose the direct connection to fitness," Connolly told SNEWS®, comparing them to what he called leisure items such as patio furniture or pool tables. "This is the perfect opportunity to go from childhood fitness to adult fitness."

Economically, many of today's specialty fitness stores aren't profitable, he said, since the leases are such a high portion of the operational cost because of prime locations, so he started working on a new angle.

"The current model doesn't seem to be working in this challenging economy," he said.

With the model he is preparing to debut, The Fitness Store will share retail space already occupied by 17 of Creative Playthings' 19 company stores in seven eastern states. Those stores are a few streets away from "Main Street," as he called it, therefore lowering lease expense.

"We're a destination shop," he said. "They'll drive three or four blocks to find us."

Creative Playthings will share retail space in The Fitness Group's five Precor Home Fitness stores in four states, which will eventually change their name also to The Fitness Store. Connolly currently has no plans to go into the two Creative Playthings stores in the Carolinas.

The Fitness Group's three remaining HEST stores (two in Dallas and one in Houston) and four Texas Home Fitness stores (in Corpus Christi, Austin, San Antonio and McAllen) will also begin to incorporate the Creative Playthings equipment. Connolly said their names are not expected to change.

The new business as of last week can be found online at www.thefitnessstore.us, but all of the group's other URLs (www.hestfitness.com, www.texashomefitnessonline.com, www.thefitnessgroup.com and www.precorhomefitness.net) are now also referring to that site. A complete list of suppliers was still being finalized at deadline.

A test of the Creative Playthings high-end, wooden swing sets has been ongoing for a number of months in the Massachusetts market of Precor Home Fitness, which Connolly called successful. There has also been some play sets in a few of the Texas stores.

"I don't think there's a better fit," Creative Playthings CEO Donald Hoffman told SNEWS. "Our business is a February to September business, although it doesn't really kick in until March, and fitness is an October to February business.

Plus, both Hoffman and Connolly said, the buyer demographic is similar, as is the cost of the average specialty fitness equipment and average swing set.

"There is a tremendous synergy between our customers and Mike's customers," said Hoffman, who took over the business in the '70s and was the second manufacturer of wood swings sets in the United States.

Although the two companies will cooperate, each will still run their own businesses and stores, service their own products, and train their own staff. Still, they will swap expertise and training.

"You can't do this half-heartedly," Connolly said. With the immediate launch of so many stores, "we can deliver the presence in the market."

--Therese Iknoian

SNEWS View®: The businesses began to evolve in the spring as Texas stores shut down while Northeastern stores changed (click here to see a May 6, 2009, SNEWS story and here for a June 22, 2009, story covering closures and changes), although company executives remained mum. But this summer Connolly began to develop a plan, which he recently agreed to share with SNEWS. His plan is to tap into what he hopes will be a profitable venture that could attract a broader audience that may also come shopping more often. Although there are nay-sayers in the fitness industry about synergy with various other products -- from patio furniture and saunas, to swing sets and pool tables -- we at SNEWS believe that some fitness specialty retailers -- not all, of course -- may need to look beyond a narrow product line of equipment to remain viable. To that end, we began featuring stores that are looking beyond traditional norms in an occasional series called "Rethinking Retail" where we spotlight stores that are doing something different (www.snewsnet.com/rethinkingretail) with product lines, with merchandising or to attract customers. The Fitness Store/Creative Playthings may become one of those. Of course, only the market will decide in the end.

--SNEWS® Editors

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