Questions, few answers, in shuttering of The Fitness Group’s retail holdings nationwide

Some two weeks after doors started slamming shut on the Northeast’s Precor Home Fitness and Texas’ remaining HEST stores, leaving unpaid employees and angry customers, there are more questions than real answers. SNEWS® takes an inside look at what's been going on.
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Some two weeks after doors started slamming shut on the Northeast’s Precor Home Fitness and Texas’ remaining HEST stores, leaving unpaid employees and angry customers, there are more questions than real answers.

Stores began shutting in Texas in spring 2009, but the Northeastern branch with five stores that had launched in late 2008 was still operating. In Texas, it was no secret that there was enough financial trouble brewing to endanger that arm of The Fitness Group’s business as stores and warehouses shut, employees were let go, and suppliers shifted business to other retailers. (Click here to see a May 6, 2009, SNEWS® story, “What’s going on at The Fitness Group? Sudden store closures leave industry wary, wondering,” or here to see a June 22, 2009, SNEWS story, “Precor moves Houston distributorship to Busy Body, HEST's future still unknown.”)

But in the Northeast, The Fitness Group President Mike Connolly had just launched a partnership with Creative Playthings (CP) to join under one retail banner on sales of high-end fitness equipment such as CP’s high-end wooden swing sets. (Click here to see Sept. 14, 2009, story, “Mike Connolly’s The Fitness Store joins with Creative Playthings in new take on East Coast retail.”) The Northeastern retail branch had even sent regionally targeted promotional postcards in about mid-December offering $500 off certain Precor equipment and a free mat in a special that the card stated was valid through Jan. 31, 2010. But by Jan. 1, 2010, it was apparent most of those stores were closed or closing.

We heard accounts from shoppers in Creative Playthings stores selling fitness equipment that staff was telling angry customers calling about equipment that was ordered and paid for, but not delivered, to dispute the charge on their credit cards since they were a different company. Apparently, customers were finding these stores to call because they were listed on Creative Playthings/The Fitness Store retail locators along with the Precor Home Fitness stores that had been shuttered. (In the last few days, those locators are not live.) As one insider told us, the last two words one customer used before hanging up weren’t “bye bye.” The company had even on Dec. 29, 2009, distributed nationally a press release touting the fitness-swing set retail relationship. Click here to see that press release on SNEWS, “New Family Focused Fitness Partnership Brings Home Fun and Fitness for Every Age,” which listed Connolly as the contact. 

Some suppliers also told SNEWS they were sending in operatives to basically grab equipment off the floor so as not to lose it when employees started being laid off, the doors started shutting and what equipment remained was disappearing. One said his company was “in shock” with the sudden demise after not more than a year.

Creative Playthings partnership

The partnership with Creative Playthings is, however, still operating in 18 CP stores, Don Hoffman, owner of the Massachusetts-based company, told SNEWS. That includes selling fitness, despite some troubles.

“There is a little turmoil going on,” he told SNEWS on Jan. 18, “but I think we’ll get through this.

“In any new business, whatever you plan to do the first year, if you’re successful, it will happen the second year. We’re optimistic,” he added. Still, he did add that he had been “disappointed” in traffic, but that hadn’t deterred him yet.

“We plan to leave (fitness equipment) on our selling floor,” he said. “I personally see this not as a swing set store with treadmills and ellipticals but us evolving into a residential playground store and a residential fitness store.”

He declined further comment regarding the closures of the Precor Home Fitness stores, which had also been part of the swing set partnership under the direction of Connolly. Connolly did not return several emails and a phone call from SNEWS. According to suppliers, Bruce Thaler, who had been one of several original investors in the HEST Fitness acquisition in 2007, had not been communicating with them.

During the first part of January, The Fitness Group website (www.thefitnessgroup.com), HEST Fitness website (www.hestfitness.com), a related retail site (www.texashomefitnessonline.com) and Precor Home Fitness (www.precorhomefitness.net) were all inactive (precorhomefitness.com belongs to Scott Egbert’s Washington-based retail business). Despite “domain for sale” and error messages, the Hest and the Texas Home sites offered some insight for a few days with messages stating the companies were out-of-business ("Please note that Hest Fitness has gone out of business. This website is closed permanently") -- messages that disappeared a few days later. As of mid-January, The Fitness Store site (www.thefitnessstore.us) was still operating, but in the last few days, it also went dark although it is still registered to Connolly.

HESTFitnessWebsiteJan1110SM.jpg

Retail tries to re-group

Certainly, the Northeast fitness retail market doesn’t need another black mark on its record -- one that could burn it yet again with area consumers. Described with words like “bizarre” and “shocking,” we’ll look forward to hearing and letting the industry know what has happened and what will happen. Meanwhile -- no surprise -- other retailers have begun to fill-in the gaps in both the Northeast and in Texas. Click here to read a Jan. 18, 2010, story about Albert Kessler getting back into Texas retail and Joe Gulino taking on his own store in the Northeast.

--Therese Iknoian 

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