A shiny lime green façade edged with colored tiles in rather cheeky blues and greens demands the attention of shoppers passing by the FitChix store in the Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall.
Strolling along, sometimes with pre-holiday strides that scream "I have a purpose," shoppers in the Arizona mall can't seem to resist the pull to glance at the store. Their strides hesitate a moment as they sneak a peek, then they invariably chirp aloud to themselves or to companions, "FitChix," followed by a giggle or a smile.
Sitting outside the store on a mall bench, owners Michael Grant and Dan Foust of Commotion Retail, shake their heads and grin: "They all walk by and they all say 'FitChix,'" said Foust. "It's hysterical."
SNEWS knows the current economic state is having a huge impact on the specialty retail business. This is one look at different ways retailers are rethinking their retail strategy to become better at serving customers and keeping their bottom line intact. We will take a look at different retail concepts we find in a periodic and ongoing series of stories in SNEWS. This time around we focused on a new fitness retail store with an emphasis on fitness that includes equipment but speaks to the well-rounded needs of a fit and healthy lifestyle. Stay tuned for more in-depth reporting on the current situation both economically and at retail as it develops and changes.
Nestled near the base of an escalator that carries the holiday shopping stream down the way to anchor store Nordstrom, FitChix (www.fitchix.com) has been open since September and is flouting the economic downturn. Although not breaking records, it's been profitable since the start -- just like many of the upscale stores that are its neighbors: Burberry, Roberto Botticelli, Hugo Boss, Tiffany & Co., and Louis Vuitton. Yes, this is not a mall for those that are faint of wallet.
These days, flouting, of course, doesn't mean rolling in the dough. The Phoenix, Ariz., area has the same problems as others, and recent reports show that so far this year a million fewer passengers have passed through the airport there. Nevertheless, for FitChix it does still mean good revenues -- SNEWS watched several yoga mats, a few handheld accessories, some clothes and even a Lifecore recumbent bike be purchased in the span of a few hours one day in November. Still, it takes some chutzpah to open a fitness retail store right now. But founders Grant and Foust, who bantered about the concept for several years before taking action a year ago with the first store in Gilbert, Ariz., had had enough of alleged fitness retail stores who really were not selling fitness, as they put it, but were simply selling fitness equipment. And most of the existing models didn't cater to or even understand the mindset of a woman shopper.
"Nobody was ever doing anything to cater to women," Foust said. "In this industry, for the most part, retailers don't sell fitness. They're all about nuts and bolts. That's not what inspires people.
"This," he added, glancing over at the windows screened with the slogan -- "Your body. Your goal. Your store." -- "is a vehicle to a lifestyle."
Two guys and the chicks
It's an obvious question really: How did two longtime fitness equipment guys come to open a store for chicks splashed in a perky lime green with an entire wall of sport bras?
Grant, with a degree in broadcast journalism, spent 13 years at G&G Fitness, gradually working into director of marketing from a part-timer during college. Foust, after 12 years at True Fitness at various times in sales or marketing, was thinking about getting into retail and considers himself a student of retail. He and Grant often found themselves in debates about what the fitness industry was doing wrong at retail and what it could do better, with Grant often taking the side of retailers and Foust the side of suppliers. Then as Grant calls it, they had a "chocolate-and-peanut-butter moment." They realized if they worked together, in the end the result would be much better.
"Let's start a real fitness store," Grant said they thought. But what they wanted was everything fitness, health and wellness under one roof -- equipment, apparel, nutrition, DVDs, even baby jogging strollers.
Grant already had been involved with G&G revamping its stores to cater more to female shopping tastes and preferences (Click here to find a 2006 GearTrends® magazine article by SNEWS, "Stores with more," on page 28 of the magazine.). But he wanted to do more than that. He wanted to reinvent fitness retail. With Foust as his partner at Commotion Retail since mid-2007, they dove into the job at hand.
First job: Ask women questions, then listen and listen hard. Get ready to try anything, and then be prepared to change quickly. And often.
"It's amazing what happens when you ask," Foust said. "It's amazing what women will tell you if you ask and then just listen. We just started asking questions, then shut up."
Basically, added Grant, they said they knew they could at least match what was already going on at fitness retail, "and hopefully we can do better."
(SNEWS took a look at "What Women Want" in a panel discussion at the 2007 Health & Fitness Business show. Click here to read a story about that discussion and click here to hear the full 90-minute recording of the forum, moderated by SNEWS.)
Big-time bra research
Don't laugh. Perhaps symbolic of their ability to ask questions and be open to information was what they started learning about sport bras. They learned quickly from supplier Moving Comfort how much technology goes into a bra and how many women don't wear the right size. Now their wall stocks up to 14 styles at a time in various colors from three brands (Moving Comfort, CW-X and Zoot) and that category stands tall as a store best-seller.
"It's an issue of universal need," Grant said, "and, therefore, a universal draw. Women come because they are attracted to the sports bras because good ones are so hard to find. And then they end up buying a bunch of other things once they are exposed to the store."
And the bras only begin to represent their ability to think beyond belts, drums and motors.
Employees, for example, were key. For their first job opening, they received 135 resumes. They targeted women who were involved in fitness themselves, such as instructors or trainers. SNEWS met one who had a degree in exercise physiology and was a personal trainer and another who was a Pilates instructor and runner. That meant that women who came in the store had someone to help them who understood and could educate them, not to mention just swap chatter about the activity. That established a relationship to the store that women find key in choosing where to shop.
FitChix brand colors were a hard pick. They avoided pink since that just screamed Victoria's Secret when it came to the mall, and red too since that said Target or JCPenney, but green? Nobody was green, let alone an in-your-face lime green that was all at once symbolic of both nature and a vibrancy they wanted to encompass.
Stocked in the store too is a medley of all things that you would want if you were into fitness or wanted to get into fitness from big (a Power Plate vibration trainer, Life Fitness treadmill, Lifecore recumbent bike, StarTrac Spinning indoor cycles, Baby Joggers) to small (Stamina Pilates circles, Polar heart rate monitors, Spri stretch tubing). But what's impressive is the dedication to apparel (New Balance, Prana, Moving Comfort, Stonewear Designs, SheBeest, etc.) and education like DVDs and booklets on everything imaginable.
The duo has actually discovered they are selling more apparel and accessories than they thought they would and had to move fast to order more.
But equipment sells too. On the day SNEWS visited, a baby boomer couple was walking through the mall past FitChix's front door when the man spied a recumbent bike (Lifecore) toward the back of the store. He pointed it out to his wife, he said, since he thought it would fit nicely in the space they had since it was so compact. His wife had been wanting a bike to use on days when her knees bothered her and their treadmill wasn't comfortable to use. Although not intending to buy a bike on that day in the mall, 10 minutes later they were discussing price and delivery, and out came his credit card.
The staff said men had already begun to come in asking for advice on what to buy their wives or girlfriends -- think how busy Victoria's Secret is with that kind of thing, especially during the holidays.
The owners are always asking themselves about how they are doing things: For example, Grant noted that a countertop display of heart rate monitors on the right side of the checkout area (with a lot of pink ones he said they never could have carried at other stores) just wasn't garnering sales so he moved it to the left. Voila, sales soared. And it's not unusual that the two will be in the store after-hours pushing around equipment to see how a change of the show window changes traffic and sales the next day.
One sales staff member said she went into another equipment store once. She called it "cold and plain Jane" with its rows of equipment and she just wasn't comfortable: "It's like as a woman walking into a body shop for your car," she said.
Then she was interrupted by a customer: "Do you have the brand 'Beyond Yoga?'"
"We have lots of cute stuff by other brands," she said. "What kind of yoga do you do?"
"Oh, I was just there last night," the salesperson answered and off the two went to look at some apparel that might suit the customer.
Despite the economic situation, Grant and Foust are optimistic about the future. So far, the two themselves have funded the operation's start. But they are also looking for capital partners who can also bring a value to the building of the business. And they won't give up their interests and passion for money.
"Money alone won't get us from good to great," Foust said.
That's because they believe strongly in what they are doing. Coming will be equipment branded FitChix in their quest to be THE brand, much like women's athletic and athletic lifestyle catalog brand Athleta (click here to see a June 2, 2004, SNEWS story about that women's only brand, also begun by a man, "Growing Athleta women's catalog fills niche."). Athleta was sold to Gap in September 2008, a decade after it was founded, going from five Athleta-branded items and $1.5 million in sales in the first year to being sold for $150 million. At the time, Gap noted the acquisition would allow it to grow its presence in the "growing $31 billion U.S. women's active apparel sector. (Click here to see a Business Wire announcement.)
They also are sizing up other markets where expansion can happen nationally, biding their time until the time and place is right. And looking outside the fitness specialty retail of today for ideas, concepts and products.
"We're going after a completely different mindset about how to do (fitness) retail," Foust said. "We really believe FitChix can be the Victoria's Secret of fitness."
SNEWS® View: FitChix gets it. It gets the shopping mentality of women, while not insulting men. Its gets the fact that selling accessories and apparel all day is better than standing around and waiting for that one big equipment sale. Its gets it that fitness retail has to be about much more than just about equipment, but also about a shopping experience and customer service that will keep someone going back -- just to check out what's new or because he or she knows they can get advice and, yes, service. And it understands it must do service right -- service that means more than an obligatory "Can I help you?" when you walk in the door, but service that represents a true desire to help get someone fit in the broad sense of the word. Service that may mean a sale of $1,000 or $3,000 or even $5,000 on equipment, but since that only happens every few years -- if that -- it means being there to supply all those things in between those big purchases. The ceiling-high wall of sports bras is a great example. Women are constantly on the search for THE bra that's right for them, that fits, that's comfortable, that supports, and that even flatters and looks kinda cute. The fact that two long-time equipment guys can realize the importance of bras and be ready to work with suppliers to learn more about them says something about where this concept could head.
SNEWS has told more than a few people how excited we were when we initially heard about Paiva, the women's store launched grandly by The Finish Line in 2006. We had visions frankly of the very thing that FitChix has tackled. But hopes were dashed when it became just another mall sports shoe store with a few clothes hanging around. Yawn, been there, done that. Which must have been the general response since The Finish Line shut down its first round of stores not much more than a year after the debut "to focus capital on higher return opportunities." (Click here to see an April 14, 2006, SNEWS story, "Paiva moves into women's specialty sports/fitness retail arena.")
On the other hand, despite economic worries and retail floundering, for those with chutzpah, this is the very time to get rolling -- leases in prime places are cheaper and easier to get and you'll have some time to get out the kinks before the economy comes racing back -- assuming one is smart in the meantime and can still survive financially. FitChix has a future -- assuming that Grant and Foust don't burn themselves out in their passion and can find the appropriate value-added partners. Although we wish there were a FitChix store in our area, its online presence could tap into women around the country -- again like Athleta, Title IX and Lucy stores and catalogs have done. Key to remember is to cater but not to pander to women to win them over -- and to get them to spend their money in your store, plus to recommend you to their family and friends too. We look forward to watching FitChix progress with its emphasis on fitness that includes equipment but speaks to the well-rounded needs of a fit and healthy lifestyle.
SNEWS is looking at different ways retailers are rethinking how they do business in a periodic and ongoing series of stories. Stay tuned for more looks like this. Email us at email@example.com with any tips, comments or ideas on stories you'd like to see, questions you may have, or about any retailers -- even yourself -- who are taking a different look at how they approach the retail business.