In a move that may raise eyebrows although it is fully legal, retailer Superior Fitness has bought a number of website URLs with names of direct area competitors and has designed them all to take visitors to its own website.
Within a period of four months and apparently after talking to a retailer entering the area about his plans, Superior Fitness management paid for URLs such as LifestyleFitnessEquipment.com and dot-net, CharlotteFitnessEquipment.com and dot-net, and CharlotteFitness.com. Go to any one of them and you will land at SuperiorFitness.com, without any message that tells visitors they were taken someplace different.
When SNEWSÂ® stumbled on the websites while doing regular news research, we called Chip Hunnings, founder of Lifestyle Fitness Equipment, which opened in the Charlotte, N.C., area late last November, to ask him about the website discrepancy. Hunnings told us he discussed his business plans with Superior owners Wayne McCarty and Paul Harwood in late summer, suggesting some kind of business partnership with the industry colleagues whom he's known for some two decades and who actually hired him into the fitness business.
"I was surprised that it happened," Hunnings said about the website purchases, "simply because I've known Wayne and Paul for a long time."
Still, he said he hasn't gone back to them to express his dissatisfaction over what seemed like a betrayal.
"Obviously, it pissed me off," he added. "To see this happen, it was like the first shot over the bow."
Superior Fitness Executive Vice President Clay Peddycord, whose name is on the purchases on web registration records, told SNEWSÂ® there was never an intent to mislead customers, but rather it was a business move, much like buying property or stocks as an investment.
"There are so many different variations of URLs somebody can register," said Peddycord, who said the Charlotte-based company actually owns as many as 40 or 50 different fitness-related URLs that just use some geographic location combined with "fitness.com/.net" or "fitnessequipment.com/.net." "It's an interesting dynamic in our country. It's a type of property you can buy or sell."
Nevertheless, Peddycord said he sees no reason he'd want to sell the URLs to his competitors.
Public records at Network Solutions show administrative contacts at all the domains in question are Peddycord. The primary URLs were acquired on Dec. 4, 2004, days after Hunnings opened his store, with at least one record for Charlotte Fitness (a branch of Charleston Fitness Equipment) dating back to August 2004, or about three months before that branch was opened. In fairness, records also show that yet another North Carolina person, whom Peddycord said he didn't know, owns Charlottefitness.net, an acquisition made in June 2004.
Indeed, if one puts in generic, geographic-oriented URLs that are not live websites -- we tried the likes of NorthCarolinaFitness.com, SouthCarolinaFitness.com (now available sooo graciously by the owner for $400 a year), LosAngelesFitness.com (for sale for $1,688), and ColoradoFitness.com -- they are owned by people in places such as Texas, Hong Kong or Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, nailing down the most likely URL of a direct competitor could be perceived differently, although Peddycord was matter-of-fact about the acquisition.
"URLs are something anybody can purchase," Peddycord said. "We've been in this area quite a long time, and we saw some competitors coming into town.
"It's interesting folks would come into town and not wrap up" the URL that has their business name, he added.
John Ward, co-owner of Charlotte Fitness Equipment and Charleston Fitness Equipment, said he also stumbled upon the URLs acquisition, as well as when they were done and by whom, while doing some Internet research.
"It was very under-handed, no question about that," Ward said. "It's sneaky. And it speaks to the character of the company. It hasn't bothered me as much as it has customers who also brought it to my attention."
Ward, who also has a website under development at www.CharlestonFitness.com, said he too has not bothered going to Superior. With a business model that includes a sub-let personal training studio in each retail store, he and co-owner Dan Wilkins are already planning expansion in the Charlotte area, with an additional website under discussion.
"This won't block me from having a web presence," Ward said.
Hunnings, who sold his Colorado and Arizona All About Fitness stores to Busy Body Home Fitness in May 2004, is also preparing to open a second branch of Lifestyle about three miles from a current Superior location and plans more in the area this year. His website will be www.LifestyleFitness.com.
"If it hurts us, it hurts us. It's a business strategy. Is it really going to keep us from growing? No," Hunnings said. "This kind of thing comes back and haunts.
"Our approach is, we're going to run our business and grow and do what we have to do," Hunnings added. "Our real battle is getting people to buy specialty fitness in the first place."
SNEWSÂ® View: It's one thing when some website domain speculator in China or some far-flung place decides to buy up a bunch of URLs in the hopes of selling them later to make money -- and one of them happens to be yours. It's an entirely different matter when a business hears about a competitor and specifically buys what would most obviously be the other business' URL, and then points it to his own website. To put this into perspective, imagine opening a business, but then having a competitor buy up the listings to your store in all the available yellow pages, white pages and phone directory listings with your name on them (if that were possible). Customers trying to reach you would instead reach your competitor. Customers searching for you on MapQuest or Yahoo instead get directions to your competitor.
We're not sure we fully buy into the assertion that this is simply an investment endeavor either since there isn't a desire to sell the registered URLs to either of Superior's competitors; however, depending on your web savvy and entrepreneurial business nature, your attitude about this matter could be very different.
To us, the whole affair comes off a bit like a silly neener-neener kid's schoolyard game. Superior Fitness has a fine and solid business reputation as a retailer. Why does it need to engage in what could be viewed as ethically questionable, although absolutely legal, business maneuvers? So much for Southern hospitality. We are sure the white gloves are now off and the mint juleps are set aside as the Southeast experiences exponential population growth -- and corresponding fitness retail growth. That means it'll be all hands on deck, and nobody will be as polite about customers and product lines as they may have been -- and we know there are already other games going on, perhaps in retaliation that cuts both ways. All's fair, as they say.
Nevertheless, there is a lesson here: If you have a business or are planning a business, reserving your most desirable URL or URLs -- or the closest you can get to them -- is something that should happen in the planning stage, not after you announce the business or open your doors. If you aren't sure which is best, lock up several, and then decide. To find out if what you want is available -- or to research others -- go to www.NetworkSolutions.com.