With the first quarter of the New Year behind us -- and plenty of time for Life Fitness to settle in at Dick's and Precor at Sport Chalet -- SNEWS® dispatched its shopping team into a number of each chain's stores on both coasts to see how it was going in the fitness department for the high-end equipment suppliers.
Not officially going through an entire SNEWS Mystery Shopping experience, we nevertheless had our team members take a peek in the stores, get a feel at the layout, size up the presentation, talk to staff and, generally, find out how the recent experiments at sporting goods was treating the two largest North American specialty fitness equipment manufacturers.
Dick's dances with Life, SPC with Precor
As we wrote in November 2008, both companies decided to expand their distribution at the sporting goods retailers, partly to offset their sudden lack of reach to the consumer when FHI declared bankruptcy reorganization on Oct. 20 (Click here to read our Oct. 21, 2008, story, "Omni/Busy Body Home parent FHI files Ch. 11 reorganization for entire group, plans sale of stores," the first of many SNEWS stories since then.)
On Nov. 3, Life Fitness spoke to SNEWS to explain its direction, "Life Fitness to pilot 'store within a store' concept at 20 Dick's Sporting Goods," noting it was a test in several East Coast states. President John Stransky at the IHRSA show told SNEWS the company was still in a wait-and-see mode about the concept, its continuation or discontinuation, as well as its implementation.
"We rely on specialty, so we want to make the right decisions," Stransky noted at that time, but added that if it worked out for all parties, the company would expand it to additional Dick's stores in other areas.
Precor first discussed the strategy publicly for a Nov. 28 SNEWS story to explain some details of its distribution realignment that was going to include Sport Chalet as an exclusive partner in Arizona, Nevada and California. (Click here to see that SNEWS story.) But the company was clear this strategy was not going to be the rule for its distribution:
"This isn't to say that all sporting goods stores would be a good fit," then-spokesman Jim Zahniser had told SNEWS. "Sport Chalet is differentiated by going deep into specific activities -- their investment and market presence in scuba is the case in point."
No matter what the reasoning or the future, the dance continues with results that could be considered sometimes more successful than others, as our shoppers discovered.
Sport Chalet and Precor
The Sport Chalet stores we visited in California and Arizona ranged from helpful to not at all helpful.
In one lengthier experience in a newer store, the "Precor consultant," as he introduced himself, was prompt and efficient after our shopper had only wandered around the area for about five minutes. The opening question, however, needed some help: "You finding everything OK?" What do you say to that? What customer wants to admit he or she is not OK? Well, our shopper did, but we had to. Our shopper asked about the prices, expressing shock at treadmills, ellipticals and that "other thing" (the AMT) with price tags reaching $8,000; they were cuddled up next to pieces from Horizon, Marcy and Diamondback for a quarter or an eighth those prices (see photo, below).
Our consultant explained they were "club quality" and were better for your knees and tried to explain how "smooth" they were. Smartly, he invited the shopper up onto one, leading the shopper afterward over to a Diamondback elliptical to compare. Literature was not available although he did print out a comparison list of features. Actually, we think the list may have been for in-store use since it gave a list of the "top 3 selling points," listing "feel" because of the ramp and the range of motion, "assurance" because it was "commercial grade" and the company had a "top-rated service department," and "results" due to the intuitive console and the variety of workouts.
In two stores in Arizona where we took a look, there were 10 to 12 pieces of equipment per store. At the above California location, there were 14. Most pieces were treadmills or ellipticals although there were usually one to two bikes or gyms. Unfortunately, despite a nice banner, the presentation lacked anything special. Smooshed into one row were all the bikes, treadmills and ellipticals all side-by-side and facing in head-to-head, still resembling a bit of a warehouse. The Precor banner, along with the priciest of pieces, were at the end on the aisle. No other special carpet or separation from the neighboring sports medicine straps, tennis balls or kid's shoes existed.
Other shoppers were less successful to start: In one case in Arizona, the "fitness guy," as our shopper was told, was "at lunch" and unavailable, leaving our shopper in limbo and frustrated. In the other, the salesperson who asked our shopper if he needed help unfortunately wasn't the "fitness guy" and couldn't answer any questions. He also didn't know when the specialist worked again.
In one Southern California location, our shopper stood around for a few minutes with no help, finally helping himself onto the equipment for tests. He noted they were not plugged in and therefore he could not get a good feel for them. In this case, he noted the area actually looked pretty nice, despite the lack of help.
Dick's and Life Fitness
In our visits to several stores in the East, our experiences were up and down. In all cases they had about seven or so pieces, somewhat pushed together, but not difficult to maneuver around, our shoppers said.
One shopper in particular felt she had a very positive experience. The store was spacious and clean and the fitness equipment was easy to find and prominently displayed. Granted, there was nobody in the fitness equipment department to help her, and our shopper did have to go find somebody in a neighboring area.
The salesman in this experience in the Northeast seemed knowledgeable and helpful, even asking questions about our shopper's intended workouts and if anybody else in the household would use the equipment. As comparison, he even showed our shopper a piece by another brand and said it too was excellent. The salesman even made sure our shopper had all the appropriate literature she would need to peruse for making a decision -- without having to ask.
In another experience, in the Massachusetts area, our shopper wasn't perhaps so lucky. She did have the same initial experience as the above store -- after wandering around for 11 minutes she finally flagged somebody down to come help her. That seems to mean that although the sales help is pretty good once they get there, they may not be as good at, well, getting there.
Once on hand, our shopper asked about the big price differences between the Life Fitness product and the other equipment. But the only explanation our salesman had was that it was "more durable." Our shopper wasn't at all convinced that the shoppers at Dick's would be ready to ante up for the much higher-priced Life Fitness equipment. Overall, though, the salesman seemed pretty well-versed on the whole, particularly when it came to the ellipticals, but less so with home gyms: He even noted the home gym only offered upper-body options, but our shopper noted it included lower-body options.
This shopper not only wasn't offered literature, but also was told simply to go to the website to find more.
Overall, there was some good, some bad and some decent -- widely varied as you'd expect in this kind of retail environment. As our last shopper noted, "It was the type of service I'd expect from a big-box store -- that is, fairly shallow, but decent."
--Therese Iknoian, with SNEWS mystery shoppers in the field
SNEWS® View: Although both companies have said they are training staff at the stores, it can't be easy to keep that going since these types of stores generally have more turnover than specialty. Generally, the presentation of the Precor equipment at Sport Chalet was less aesthetic and, well, less special than those by Life Fitness at the Dick's stores. We think when somebody is shopping for equipment in the price range that most of this is, presentation would make a difference between a go and no-go deal. Unless a customer feels safe spending multiple thousands -- and significantly more than they would for another brand in the same building -- it could be a hard sell. Dashing into a sporting good store for a stability ball, a tennis racquet, bike helmets or even a golf club or two is a lot different than dropping $5,000 (or more) on a large, technical, motorized, computerized piece of equipment. Not to say that the manufacturers couldn't make it work. We think they could. But the ROI may have to be weighed when it comes to, one, the process of making it work and, two, possible alienation of specialty dealers. That's, of course, assuming they want not only to keep specialty dealers but also work with them to improve too. We'll check back into these tests, their progress, expansion or continuation as the year progresses.