Nautilus TreadClimber hits positive chord at NY launch

In a highly awaited but only lightly hyped launch in a New York hotel conference room, Nautilus unsheathed its new direct-to-consumer TreadClimber for the first time in public, winning mostly positive reviews from financial analysts, investment bankers and media in attendance.
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In a highly awaited but only lightly hyped event in a New York hotel conference room, Nautilus launched its new direct-to-consumer TreadClimber for the first time in public, winning mostly positive reviews from financial analysts, investment bankers and media in attendance.

Dubbed a "revolutionary" new product and one that has been in development for nearly three years, the TreadClimber is a combination of treadmill, stepper and cross-country skier in its movement that demands stepping up on individual foot platforms called "treadles" (that actually move up and down like steps), while also stepping forward since the treadles are each little mini-treadmills with separate rotating belts. The rotating motion slides your foot backward in a cross-country-skier-like motion after each step, forcing you to fight gravity and the motion to bring your foot back up and forward again for the next step.

When asked for feedback on the feel of a workout from one financial analyst at the launch, the woman said, "It definitely took a few minutes to get the hang of it. I started breaking a sweat right away. It was nice that it didn't hurt your joints but that you could feel it work in the places that count. Let's just say I deserve the cheesecake in front of me!"

Commercials for the product -- which launched Monday evening on the likes of ESPN and CNN -- use typical direct-marketing hype, touting the TreadClimber workout as one that won't take a lot of time, is easy, effective and drives weight loss, and that you'll look and feel great. It follows the Bowflex model of driving music and great bodies, SNEWS insiders in attendance said. The product's spokesperson is "Owen," a tanned "block of muscle" who also is a Bowflex spokesman and whose six-pack has graced the cover of Men's Health magazine, according to one attendee.

Financial analysts have told SNEWS that they aren't sure yet if this is going to be "the next Bowflex." Nevertheless, one said, in many ways it fills the needs of such a popular product because of innovation and unique movement patterns, while also addressing the large market for aerobic equipment as well as directly appealing to the huge weight-loss market. By design, both its website (www.treadclimber.com) and its commercial could also drive an emotional purchase, he said.

"It seems like a quality product," he told SNEWS afterward. "I rode it awhile. I got tired. Does that mean it's good?"

Expectations are for the product to bring in about $5 million to $6 million in sales in the remainder of 2003 (as much as $10 million in the first 12 months), while actually losing a small amount (some say $500,000 to $600,000) from traditionally high start-up and marketing costs. As with products of this type, it should become profitable in the second year, with sales forecast to double in the second 12 months to $18 million to $20 million and for the company to turn a small profit. Sales should continue to grow moderately after that, but at a slower rate, SNEWS was told, but it will get more profitable as it matures. All forecasters, however, have said the economy and other geopolitical factors could affect, even dampen, sales.

The stock market on launch day wasn't thrilled, with Nautilus prices (NYSE: NLS) losing 3.83 percent, closing at 13.04. However, despite prices continuing to drop the first part of Wednesday, reaching about 12.90 by mid-day, they then began to climb, closing at 13.26.

One SNEWS source attending the launch, attended by about 70 mostly financial types, said the workout was challenging and required some coordination, while another said there was a really steep learning curve to mastering the movement. One advantage with the machine, however, is adjustability: Beginners can lower the maximum height of the steps so you aren't stepping up as far, lower the resistance so it doesn't take as much muscle to step, slow down the speed, or even set the independent platforms so they lock together to transform it into a short hiking treadmill.

"My immediate impression (after thinking how unbelievably uncoordinated I was) was that it is really taxing, but not at all on your joints or tender spots," said one attendee. "The manufacturers equate it to walking in deep, loose sand. I think it's almost like trying to cross-country ski uphill. You feel a relentless back and downward sliding motion from the belt, so you not only have to step forward to keep up with the motor, but you really have to dig in to push the treadle downward in order to keep the stepping motion going.

"The biggest surprise for me was the immediate feel not of a cardio workout but something akin to resistance training. Sure, my heart rate spiked immediately, but my impression after one minute was that I felt like I'd just done a set of 25 squats. Even my arms felt worked. As you push against the console, you can feel your biceps tightening, trying to keep you stable as you push and step."

Although three home versions are being launched simultaneously (priced from $1,500 to $2,200), the company said it will launch a commercial-grade health club version, although no timeline has been set. For more information on the product itself, see our story from March 10.

SNEWS View: Without having used the machine extensively, we can only really speculate about possible advantages and disadvantages. Good stuff -- It doesn't take as much space as a treadmill or elliptical at home. It works your muscles as well as your cardiovascular system. Its design supposedly doesn't allow users to hunch or lean over the console although they are holding on to two stubby rails. Jury's-out stuff -- If it's that "hard" to use or learn, will a novice exerciser or couch potato get frustrated or tire too easily and give up? Will the workout cause too much quad action and therefore make women afraid of "bulking up?" Will it be too expensive for spur-of-the-moment purchases? If it's like walking in "loose sand," will it put too much strain on the lower leg and cause some injuries (since running or walking in sand is terribly difficult and very hard on the lower body too)? And, if treadmill users can clip a foot and stumble on a 20-inch-plus belt, will TreadClimber users have the same issues on a narrower platform? (We know, this sounds totally uncoordinated, but people will be people.)

Is this "The Next New Thing" the fitness industry has been clamoring for? We don't really think so. It doesn't seem to offer the ease of movement and simplicity in use as the "The Last New Thing" (elliptical). But we think it will still grab consumers who are desperate to believe claims about guaranteed weight loss and ease of exercise. It may also grab dedicated exercisers who are looking for a truly difficult indoor exercise. All of that will help boost company profits in about a year -- about the same time that Bowflex's first patent is expiring.

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