New Balance equipment to debut at Health & Fitness Biz show

After nearly two years of detailed consumer research, New Balance-branded cardiovascular fitness equipment by Fitness Quest will launch at the Health & Fitness Business show in August, with two lines and 11 pieces featuring what promises to be a few eye-catching patent-pending features.
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After nearly two years of detailed consumer research, New Balance-branded cardiovascular fitness equipment by Fitness Quest will launch at the Health & Fitness Business show in August, with two lines and 11 pieces featuring what promises to be a few eye-catching patent-pending features.

"This equipment was a departure from (Fitness Quest's) normal course, but one we thought was prudent given the opportunities we saw for this price point," Mike Clark, executive vice president of Fitness Quest, told SNEWS®. "The Denver show is the final coming-out party."

At the show will be two lines. The higher-end line will have five SKUs including a recumbent and upright bike, an elliptical, an indoor cycle bike, and an air rower. Clark said competitors are brands such as Nautilus and Vision. The slightly lower-priced line, with competitors he named being the likes of Nordic Track, Schwinn, Horizon, Keys and Diamondback, will have six SKUs, including an upright bike, two recumbent bikes, and three ellipticals.

The Power of Research

How the Fitness Quest retail line ended up with the New Balance name is an interesting tale, as Clark tells it. Nearly two years ago, the Canton, Ohio-based marketing company, which specializes in TV and infomercial equipment that is mostly direct-to-consumer, decided to survey its past customers about their needs and desires in home fitness equipment. He said for too long companies have simply made what they thought people wanted. Fitness Quest did more than 100,000 email surveys of customers, peppering them with everything from where they workout, why, when, how often, if they still use the equipment they bought, if they don't and why, if they like it, if they don't like things about it, etc.

Based on that, the company found out more about its customer demographics (more than half women, average age about 35, goals of weight loss and weight maintenance, with a time crunch, among other things).

"These were moms and dads with busy schedules who can't get to the health clubs regularly, but are desirous of achieving a healthy lifestyle," Clark said.

The company knew it wanted to do a retail line, but decided it didn't want to launch a new name, but rather tap into a name that would immediately be more familiar to consumers. So it then surveyed the respondents asking about which brands they knew or liked, what they associated with those brands, and whether they would consider buying fitness equipment form those brands if they made it. That list included all possible names such as NFL, Huffy, Timex, Nike, Reebok, and other sporting good brands. Of course, since it hadn't contacted those brands, Fitness Quest didn't even know if the company would consider equipment.

"I started to narrow it down, and it really came down to New Balance as the No. 1 brand, without any negative equity," Clark said. Plus, he said, New Balance is associated with fit, comfort and performance, which is "the No. 1 thing people want in exercise equipment."

Courting New Balance

So more than a year ago, Fitness Quest (FQ) approached New Balance, shared the research, and discussed a licensing agreement, which was signed in June 2003.

"We are excited to launch new products under the New Balance brand name," said Jim Tompkins, president and COO of New Balance, in a statement. "All of our licensee partners share our core values of product quality, integrity, customer service, and are a solid fit with New Balance's long-standing corporate philosophies."

With the deal sealed, FQ hired product developers and ergonomic experts whose MO was to come up with something all new.

Once a few prototypes were done, the company showed a few privately in a backroom at its booth at The Super Show to a few key customers. Then, six weeks later, it did "mall intercepts" in four malls in three states, including the cities of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Kansas City and Cleveland, so consumers could touch, feel, try and tell the company what they thought.

Then, the company started test sales on the Internet with a few select pieces (www.newbalancefitness.com) to make sure everything arrived as it should, worked as it should and even to test UPS shipping. After that, the company placed a few pieces in select Canton-area health clubs and asked users to fill-out surveys, plus the company swapped out the pieces to measure wear and use. Its first ad just showed up in the July issue of United Airlines Skymall magazine. New Balance's relatively new "N is for Fit" shoe campaign can be seen on the website as "N is for Fitness."

Patent-pending features

All that will come to a head when it formally rolls out is line at the show in Denver with a range of features, some patent-pending:

• Bikes will have two-side pedals, with one side having contoured "Dr Scholls-like" footbeds since FQ's research found out that many consumers like to exercise at home without shoes.

• Seats on the recumbent bikes will be mesh a la Herman Miller with lumbar supports.

• Foot platforms on the ellipticals will be cushioned – not just blow-molded and textured -- and large enough to fit all sizes of shoes and feet.

• Hand grips on equipment will be gel-like -- again, not just blow-molded and plastic -- and cushioned, such as ones found on power tools or higher-end kitchen gadgets.

"It's so important if you look at how consumers shop, that if you're showing innovation, you have to have it at the first touch point," Clark said. "The first touch point emphasizes the brand message of fit and comfort.

"They're subtle things," he continued. "We've put a lot of effort to give credence to the brand New Balance. We didn’t just take the New Balance name and slap it on old equipment. The challenge is to uphold the name."

With New Balance's stake in its name, it has maintained approval over every stage of the process and the equipment's development in what Clark calls more than a licensing deal but more like a partnership -- one that is set up for the long haul, he said. Down the road he also promises expansions to the cardiovascular category in 2005, including possibly treadmills, and a "new product that is very innovative." Retail shipments of this line will "begin in earnest after the Denver show," with full promotion and arrivals slated for the fall.

"Our goal is to have our customer think of New Balance not just as running shoes," Clark said, "but also for quality, comfort and performance in equipment."

SNEWS® View: This should be interesting indeed to see the launch in Denver. New Balance has everything to lose from a line that isn't spot-on, and we know the running shoe company won't stand for anything that won't uphold its hard-sought solid name and reputation. It also has everything to gain from a great line. Other equipment manufacturers will also be watching carefully since a brand new line like this one could make waves. It could be easier for retailers to sell a piece of equipment with a name that consumers recognize, and that alone could help the brand skyrocket in sales in its first season rather than take a few years to slowly build a name. The features mentioned are all smart no-brainer ones that make you slap your head and say, well, DUH! And a few competing manufacturers may be doing just that when they see this line roll out.

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