Fitness specialty stores can be intimidating places -- a sea of iron surrounded by four walls without a lot of warm-fuzzies and with their share of intimidation. What to do? Hire older staffers, women, fewer muscleheads, use "normal people" in ads, and help walk-ins not feel stupid when they don't know anything about the equipment or if they ask questions about it.
In a far-flung discussion during a panel talk at the Health & Fitness Business Expo last month, four panelists and more than 110 attending retailers and other show participants took on the increasingly frequently asked question, "Multi-sports vs. specialty retailers: Where is specialty fitness headed?"
"Part of what the industry needs to do is share its passion," said panelist Jhan Dolphin, U.S. representative for Northern Lights and Raw Power. "It's not that difficultâ€¦. And that's what's going to separate you from the sporting goods stores."
As many full-line sporting goods stores are trying to become more like a collection of specialty stores, small specialty outlets are worried and wondering if they can survive the onslaught. The panel members -- including Dolphin, as well as Nautilus President Kevin Lamar, 2nd Wind founder Dick Enrico, and Bodyguard Sales Manager Mike Cochrane -- offered their thoughts, then took questions. Many of the questions indicated retailers -- at least those in attendance -- were beginning to think outside of the box filled with steel most are now in. They asked about Pilates and mind-body trends, as well as how to soften their image and make it less threatening to the very public they want to attract.
For one thing, panelists agreed, the advance of the full-liner sporting goods stores and their treading on the turf of specialty fitness is not going to go away -- if anything, Dolphin added, "it's going to accelerate."
Lamar talked about trends laid out years ago by futurist Faith Popcorn that described shopping as an experience and an education, not just foraging for a product.
"The one thing the customers are clearly telling us," Lamar said based on Nautilus' thorough tracking of its customers, "is that they want knowledge. They didn't buy a product, but they bought an experience, a lifestyle and a relationship. You have the chance in this channel at specialty" to work with that desire.
Approach sales more as consulting, Cochrane advised. Forget just showing all the bells and whistles of a product, Dolphin continued. Get to know your customers, Lamar added.
Lamar told a tale of a saleswoman from an area jewelry store that spent a long time educating his wife about diamonds and jewelry, and how she made an effort to get to know her tastes, then called her if something came in she thought his wife would like. In the process, she's sold several items to her (much to his chagrin, he added with a chuckle).
"People want to buy from someone they like and trust," he said. "Look at the opportunity of everybody walking in the store as a chance to develop a relationship."
Enrico, known for his in-your-face and on-the-edge ads for his 2nd Wind stores, also pushed retailers to separate themselves from the competition to get customers in the door. He said 2nd Wind's attempt "to be everywhere" means it doesn't have to be anywhere. They always do TV commercials, billboards, even bathroom stall ads, and they do them even when economic times are tight. When times are tough, he said, they actually put more money into marketing and advertising.
"The business is there," Enrico added. "You just have to earn it."
An interesting theme of some questions was about the Pilates trend, as well as yoga and other softer exercise arts including core-training, and whether that kind of category should be considered in specialty stores.
The panelists didn't hesitate to call it, as Dolphin put it, "a serious trend to be taken seriously." One attendee even responded that specialty fitness is moving away from just selling gyms and pieces of iron.
"Soften the message," advised Lamar. "Make it more about lifestyle and wellness. Create a shopping experience that is a journey toward a healthy lifestyle.
"We don't drive products so much as we drive aspiration and motivation," he added. "Our competition is â€¦ Nintendo, the fact that sports programs are being shut down, kid's obesity, our societyâ€¦. The challenge of health and fitness is to make fitness a part of the lifestyle of the American public."
SNEWS View: We believe that specialty retail can and should survive as long as owners and managers make their stores special places for the consumer. Simply calling a store special based on a specialty selection of product alone is not enough. Boutiques survive against Macy's. Corner bakeries survive against grocery stores. But that means moving beyond the "sea of steel" atmosphere and product emphasis (don't point out that one dusty shelf of accessories and books since it doesn't count). A specialty fitness store should embrace all the fitness means: cardiovascular exercise, and strength, yes of course. But what about stretching, yoga, mind-body, martial arts, accessories, kids' fitness, and everything that's about leading a health lifestyle? What about even a few pieces of clothing or footwear since the same customer who is buying a treadmill is also going to need apparel or shoes? What about books and brochures to help them start and maintain a program? Then there's that cold rather foreboding environment in most specialty fitness stores. We don't see why a few warmer colors, wall hangings, plants and room dividers can't be part of a store to make it more welcoming. With a little work, specialty retail can remain special and vital.