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SNEWS Qs, Retailer Edition: Rodney Rice Jr., Fitness Expo

Periodically SNEWS chats with specialty retailers to ask five questions about their business and which products are flying off their showroom floors. This SNEWS Qs features Rodney Rice Jr., president of Fitness Expo.

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Rodney Rice Jr.

Owner, Fitness Expo, Metairie, La.

What do you think it will take for the fitness industry to grow a bit faster than it’s growing now?

I think that the specialty fitness business is not advertised or marketed very well nationally. The majority of consumers out there still don’t get it. They don’t understand why they should visit a specialty fitness store. I can’t explain why there are some that do get it and others who don’t. It’s a riddle none of us completely understands. Somehow, some way, our industry of specialty manufactures needs to try harder nationally to improve this exposure.

Aside from that, the economy hopefully over time will improve enough to get us all moving in the right direction. But once we return to past pre-economy crash business — then what? Before the economy crashed, many of us in this business were already seeing some fall-off per store. The only way we will really get moving is the customers have to understand that it is in their best interest to go to specialty fitness. Most consumers know this about jewelry, furniture and so on.

What are some products that are currently popular and in demand?

For us treadmills are soft; ellipticals and other traditional items are ok, but still not what I would call booming. The seated elliptical by Octane and the AMT by Precor, being unique, sell well when shown to shoppers (budget permitting). The consumers who buy these from us are usually taken away from what they think they want, and basically we sell them on something new. There are some consumers who ask for these products, but not nearly as many as we convince. There are little sparks here and there, like vibration, ElliptiGo and functional training items, but at the end of the day these sparks don’t add up to that much — at least not for us. Our markets are small to medium in size and that doesn’t help. I am sure that a major metropolis with millions of consumers may feel larger bumps with these sparks than we do.

What are some of the challenges your store has faced this year and how have you overcome them?

For us not that much has changed this year from the past few. Retail is generally soft with a bump here and there that gets us all excited, but unfortunately they have faded often. Commercial sales continue to do very well for us. We have been around 30 years now, and are entrenched with many commercial customers. We do many leases, and every three years those leases come up and it’s time for a new (piece of equipment). Commercial customers actually wear out their machines or need new for their users to be excited. The retail side of our business rarely wears out their equipment, so the only way to get those repeats are with something new, if they have an interest.

What do you foresee as being some of the big trends in fitness equipment in the next year?

Anything new could turn into a trend if we as specialty could get the word out in a big way. That’s always a challenge due to specialty not being able to have unlimited advertising budgets and so on. The seated elliptical, the AMT’s new design, the lateral trainers and so on could be a trend if we take customers from what they think they want and show them these.

Some of what I complain about is what makes specialty unique. I mean, we can be more profitable if we have cool machines that department and sporting goods don’t have, but unfortunately most consumers still think all they need is a treadmill.

What is your favorite thing about working in the fitness industry?

I love a small specialty industry like this. You meet lifelong friends on both the dealer side and the manufacturer side. In a small industry, you can actually have a voice. It is still more fun than many industries and still can provide good livings compared to some others. I would enjoy this industry more if it would just mature like we all thought it would.

The real world puts our industry in perspective, though — we have one auto group here in New Orleans that has several auto brands at area locations. They reported their sales at $356,000,000 recently in a local business journal, and that makes you really think when there are BMW or Mercedes dealerships out there doing over $100,000,000 in one location, why can’t we? Oh well, we have to keep trying.

Compiled by Ana Trujillo