Rethinking retail: Specialty fitness retail & trainer/club combos

Who says a fitness specialty store needs to just be a row of iron and steel equipment and accessories for sale? Not a few folks from sea to shining sea who run successful retail stores that are combined with either a small club or personal training studio. The combination offers a win-win of giving customers the personal attention they need for picking the best equipment for their needs and goals, a hands-on intro to their new equipment, and a consumer base for future retail purchases.
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Who says a fitness specialty store needs to just be a row of iron and steel equipment and accessories for sale? Not a few folks from sea to shining sea who run successful retail stores that are combined with either a small club or personal training studio. The combination offers a win-win of giving customers the personal attention they need for picking the best equipment for their needs and goals, a hands-on intro to their new equipment, and a consumer base for future retail purchases.

SNEWS® decided to check in with a few we've heard about around the country who have found their niche and have sustained or are growing their businesses. What is clear is that most say they tend to draw clientele that may not otherwise come into a store to buy fitness equipment.

"The training brings people in and establishes relationships," said Tom Taylor, owner of Advanced Fitness Solutions, in Lakeville, Conn., in business since 2002.

Other combination training/club-retail operations exist in Ohio (Columbus Fitness, run by Jerry Greenspan), North and South Carolina (Charlotte and Charleston Fitness Equipment, run by John Ward and Dan Wilkins), Arizona (Precision Fitness, run out of the Precision headquarters in Florida), and Florida (Big Wheel Cycles, which offers group indoor cycling, run by Sandy Chin).

But the concept isn't limited to the 48 contiguous United States. In the United Kingdom, Lifestyle Fitness runs a business that offers equipment sales, training, nutritional counseling and supplements and wellness advice (See SNEWS® story, Nov. 22, 2003, "UK's Lifestyle retailer offers equipment, training, wellness package"). And Forzani in Canada has talked for months about doing a concept store that would be a combination of retail and training (See SNEWS® story, Oct. 11, 2004, "Forzani Group to take on specialty fitness in Canada with a twist"), but we're told that the idea is on hold until later this year.

"People want a solution, not a piece of equipment," said Greenspan, owner of Columbus Fitness, which may lay claim to being one of these types that's been around the longest. "We won't sell anything to a customer that we think isn't good for them." Columbus Fitness Consultants and specialty fitness dealer Exercise Equipment Experts are housed under one roof. Greenspan started his one-stop shop in 1994 so that he could utilize his extensive education and expertise in fitness, physiology and biomechanics to work with his clients. His partner has a Ph.D. in nutrition and they, along with nine other experts, work individually with clients to cover all bases of fitness.

Greenspan compares his way of selling fitness equipment to what an optometrist does: "You don't go to an optometrist to buy your eyeglasses; you go to get your eyes examined. If the optometrist happens to sell eyeglasses, you're more likely to buy them there after your exam than you are to go somewhere else."

His business (www.columbusfitness.com) is not driven by brand. Nevertheless, he sells the products that he believes to be high quality (Bodyguard, SportsArt, Diamondback, TuffStuff and Hampton, to name a few), and this formula seems to be working very well for him. See SNEWS® story, Oct. 3, 2003, "Retailer/trainer Greenspan thrives with blended approach."

Tom Taylor, owner of Advanced Fitness Solutions in Connecticut, has the same opinion of brand-driven dealerships. He went out on his own to start a training facility after working as a sales rep in more traditional fitness equipment retailers. He was frustrated that the business was driven by the latest and greatest hot item or an overstocked item rather than what was right for the customer. He said he wanted to use his 30-plus years training in martial arts to work with his customers and sell them quality equipment.

Advanced Fitness Solutions (www.advancedfitnesssolutions.com) is a studio that offers personal training to a diverse population of clients, as well as a display of equipment. "I train everyone like an athlete," said Taylor, who runs the business with two other family members. "We're heavy on free weights and functional training." Taylor is a big fan of the Total Gym. He handpicks each piece of equipment to find what he considers the best in the category. With the exception of a few residential pieces, most of the equipment he sells is commercial grade, with his brands including True Fitness, HCI/Fluid Rower, Total Gym, Magnum Fitness, Body Cycle, York Barbell and Hampton Fitness.

For clients who spend more than $1,000 on equipment, he offers a free training session, worth approximately $60. Because of the location in northern Connecticut, Advanced Fitness attracts a lot of student athletes from the surrounding prep schools; think higher-end customers who are willing to spend more money (or, more accurately, with parents who are willing to spend money!).

A similar studio/retail store, Charlotte Fitness Equipment, opened in Charlotte, N.C., in November 2004, six months ago after seeing the success of the original store, Charleston Fitness Equipment, in Charleston, S.C., which had been around for two and a half years. John Ward, co-owner with Dan Wilkins, said he thinks that perhaps other businesses that try to make a go of it with a combo-concept have not succeeded because they dilute their brand by doing too much.

The Charlotte (a Life Fitness dealer) and Charleston stores have personal training studios next door or attached that are run by trainers who also have master's degrees in the field. That model has been a part of his and his partner's business model since they began.

In Arizona, Precision Fitness of Arizona doubles up as a Nautilus distributor and a full-service health club servicing Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. It opened in 2004 and offers personal training by contracted trainers.

Across the country in Hollywood, Fla., Big Wheel Cycles (www.bigwheelusa.com) has a schedule of indoor cycling classes taught at the store. Sandy Chin and her husband, the owners, are cyclists themselves -- as are all of their employees -- and have fostered a community of cyclists at their store by offering a riding club that does group rides a few nights a week. In bad weather and during the winter, the community turns out to grind hills and swoop downhills indoors.

"People bring their friends and pass the word around," said Chin. "And the people who come to class will often buy shoes, shorts and gloves. When they need a bike, they come to us, too." She said other stores have tried the idea but have not been successful because they don't build the community the way Big Wheel has.

Many of her customers, she said, end up buying indoor bikes (Big Wheel is a Schwinn dealer) for their home and complete the package with instructional videos. The store has been in existence for 25 years, and it's offered cycling classes for eight.

SNEWS® View: Although each model is all about combining the concept of retail with training, each does it in its own way that fits the owners, staff and needs of the community. We've always wondered why a few more combos like this don't pop up. With the right care and feeding, it seems to be a natural concept that holds people's hands, allowing them to train, then buy, or to buy, then train. And they'll have advisors readily available not only for additional purchases, but also to answer the fitness and wellness questions that can keep them on a program.

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