When it comes to treadmill reviews, perhaps only one other recommendation is as feared and revered as Consumer Reports -- that of the Treadmill Doctor. Claiming to receive as many as 15,000 unique visits a day and up to 3 million per year, this family-run business in Nashville, Tenn., has developed a name for itself with a huge boost from the Internet's viral power and a great choice in company names.
With this clout in mind, SNEWS® had a chat with the Doctor to lay out how the company goes about its reviews -- just as we did 18 months ago with Consumer Reports, Consumer Guide and Consumers Digest. (Click here to see a July 25, 2005, SNEWS® story, "Consumer Reports, Consumer Guide and Consumers Digest: Magazine differences explained.")
"We really started doing the reviews about eight years ago as a hook to drive traffic to our site so we could sell parts and accessories such as racks and mats," said Jon Stevenson, co-founder along with his brother Clark, both of whom started in the industry doing repairs for a local dealer while in high school. "I'm not sure how much clout we really have but the reviews have done what they were intended to do: Drive traffic and increase our brand name. At the same time, we may have helped someone find the treadmill that is right for them, and that's not a bad thing."
Treadmill Doctor (www.treadmilldoctor.com) does not sell home equipment, although it does sell commercial equipment through an area company it acquired in late 2005. Stevenson told SNEWS® that's why the company, founded in the late '90s, does not review commercial equipment.
The reviews are headed up by Clark Stevenson who told us the company uses several methodologies, including machines that test durability (not people), access to engineers and drawing on its experience and knowledge of parts and components. In contrast to the editors SNEWS® spoke with at the other "consumer" magazines for our 2005 story, Stevenson declined to go into any additional detail on types of machines and other procedures. Instead, he referred us repeatedly to its website FAQ (click here) to read company policies and procedures when we probed further about for example the kind of machines used, length of testing or how many people decide on a piece's rating. Said Stevenson, "We don't give out that information beyond what is listed in our FAQ page."
So how does the company decide what to review? Suppliers tell us they sometimes make a request to be included, while others just get chosen by the Stevenson brothers. The company told us that website visitors will also request certain brands or models be included.
Focusing on the more functional aspects of treadmills -- eschewing the glitz and glamour of LED displays, integrated entertainment and programming -- the company focuses on aspects such as power and durability of the machine in its reviews, emphasizing categories such as power, durability and noise.
But that is not to say that the testing is impartial and totally mechanical -- at least no more impartial than any review really can be, according to Jon Stevenson.
"Nobody that does a review of anything is unbiased. We don't care about the features, where a product is manufactured or what color it is," said Stevenson. "We come at the treadmills from the inside out, with an engineering bent to our reviews. We know the history of the company, the components used, etc. So we do have that in mind when reviewing."
Nevertheless, Dave Petersilge, vice president of Fitness Quest, which has had its New Balance line of treadmills reviewed positively, said that although Treadmill Doctor is important as a reviewing entity, he isn't totally sold that its clout surpasses the traditional consumer outlets yet.
Treadmill Doctor "seems to carry some weight. Whether they are totally forthcoming or not, self-serving or not, they do seem to create a certain amount of credibility," said Petersilge. "Still, the customer tends to view a Runner's World, for example, with greater credibility."
With more than 350 treadmills reviewed on the site and an additional 89 ellipticals, which the company started reviewing this year, Treadmill Doctor is certainly lapping the other reviewers when it comes to quantity. Additionally, the review portion of the site is updated two to three times per month, we were told, as the company pulls reviews for models it finds are no longer in production or have had their specs updated. Stevenson said the site's "Best Buys" are updated only once a year.
"That is one interesting and fascinating thing about the web, it is real time and is so important in gaining a place in the consumers' minds today," said Colleen Logan, vice president of marketing for Icon Fitness, which has received mixed reviews for its brands on the site. "This is where a Treadmill Doctor can really have some influence versus the traditional outlets that do a review once a year and look at only a handful of units."
Stevenson said he expected to stay real-time as much as possible since he said the reviews are consumer-driven, not manufacturer-driven. And although we have heard that advertising on the site could taint the reviews, that is no longer the case.
"We used to do some advertising back in 2001 and 2002 on the site, and we are asked by manufacturers if we have any 'marketing programs' and the like. But we don't make any money that way as the ads didn't really take off. We get it all from selling accessories and parts," said Stevenson. "We get 400 to 500 emails a day from consumers asking us to review this brand or that. When we see a trend, that's when we do a review. It is really up to the consumer not the manufacturer."
SNEWS® View: The brothers, who got most of the education in the industry through the school of hands-on hard-knocks, seem to be straight-up. That's, of course, not to say they don't catch flak about their reviews from manufacturers, but that's par for the course when it comes to reviews and we won't begin to speculate if it's legitimate. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. There are certainly pros and cons to reviews simply based on mechanics and the like; the consumer does indeed care quite a bit about console ergonomics, button placement, programs and aesthetics, so leaving that out is a bit of a gap. Of course, those things are also more qualitative and harder to truly rate. We'd love to see the Treadmill docs give us the detail on the machines used to test, length of testing and the other details since transparency in many of those areas would lead to additional trust from the industry, especially considering the power the company's reviews has attained.