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SNEWS 2009 Fitness Retailer Survey, part 1: Best & most difficult suppliers, fastest-growing and top-selling categories

With so much to present from our annual SNEWS® Fitness Retailer Survey, we are breaking up the results for 2009, into four parts to be run over the next few weeks. All of the news and votes make for interesting reading, and we don't want any one category to get lost in the information overload that can prevail when it's presented as one huge story. This week, we present the expanded results for "best supplier" and "most difficult supplier," as well a few general categories such as top-selling and fastest-growing with insights gleaned about revenue trends.

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With so much to present from our annual SNEWS® Fitness Retailer Survey, we broke up the results for 2009 into four parts, which have been posted to our site over the last few weeks. All of the news and votes make for interesting reading, and we don’t want any one category to get lost in the information overload that can prevail when it’s presented as one huge story. Below, we present the expanded results for “best supplier” and “most difficult supplier,” as well a few general categories such as top-selling and fastest-growing with insights gleaned about revenue trends.

The full detailed results are open to any All Access SNEWS® subscriber.

Even while scrambling to keep consumers coming in and business flowing, retailers still managed to flood our virtual gates to opt in to do the seventh annual SNEWS® Fitness Retailer Survey — the only independent measure of the pulse of the fitness industry and of its specialty retailers.

With seven years under our belts — and basically the same array of questions each year — the comparative data fascinates us as it builds year after year, and we’re sure it does you, too. Yes, yes, we know, everybody simply can’t wait to see who came in as “best” supplier or “most difficult” supplier or who took the titles of “best” in various categories. Still, we find the overall trends in selling space, sales volumes, accessory sales and general comments the most revealing. Each year we’ll also toss in one new question about a fresh category to gauge interest in it (this year, we inquired about “A-Trainers,” the hybrid elliptical/stepper/climbers pieces). And we always ask two “thought-provoking” questions to really hear more insights the industry will benefit from reading about — anonymously, of course, as the results of our entire survey and every last answer is and will always remain. This year our “thinker” questions asked about the industry’s use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and how the current economy has changed respondents’ businesses as well as their customers’ buying habits.

One thing we did change this year: We always ask how far up or down a respondent’s business is, giving ranges in percent to choose from, e.g. up 1 percent to 5 percent, up 6 percent to 10 percent, etc. This year we added one more “down” category of “down between 16 percent and 20 percent” in addition to our normal “way, way down (ouch)” choice. Fortunately, we’re glad we added that because, unfortunately, we had a number of respondents check both of them, which sheds some light on the state of 2008, too.

We’ll point this out again as we do every year: We are editors and wordsmiths, not statisticians. The survey is not and will never be scientific. Despite nits and picks we hear every year about why some way we ask a question isn’t fair, or that only allowing one answer per store no matter what it’s size is, we stand by this. We in fact agree there may be a lot of ways to do a survey like this. Ours however is based on listening to real people and then writing about what they said. Scientific? Hardly. Insightful and heartfelt? Absolutely. These are words from the soul of the industry — the retailers who sell the products and equipment and talk to the public day in and day out. They carry a lot of weight. Not only because they interact with the purchasers and users, but also because they trust us and they tell us things we know they would never tell a supplier. Trust in SNEWS, the anonymity of our survey and recognition of our independence allows retailers to open up in ways not usually afforded to them. These words, from retailers who represent many hundreds of doors and multi-millions of dollars (both U.S. and Canadian) in sales annually are not to be ignored. Listening is always the best reaction.

If you have comments or suggestions — or want to make sure you as a retailer get personal notification of our next survey — drop a note to We are here, and we are listening.

And don’t miss the full SNEWS 2009 Fitness magazine by clicking on

In your opinion, who is the “best” supplier in the business?

Octane Fitness — 18.3%

Precor — 13.4%

True Fitness — 12.2%

Bodyguard — 8.5% *

Body-Solid — 8.5% *

Inspire Fitness — 6.1%

Life Fitness — 4.9%

Others receiving votes (in alphabetical order): Accell Fitness, Bodycraft, Cybex, Hoist, Landice, LeMond, Lifecore, PaceMaster, PowerBlock, Spirit, Star Trac, Vision.

With Octane firmly planted in the top spot for the third consecutive year, we turned our focus to the jostling that is still happening below it. True Fitness seems to be doing something right as it has moved from a struggle to cling to the bottom, to last year’s fifth place to this year’s third place and not quite double the percent of votes. Despite that, Precor has hung onto its second-place ranking, although it did lose a few clicks from last year’s 16.7 percent. Bodyguard silently just keeps smiling after what appears to be another turnaround in the last couple of years, jumping onto the list with gusto last year. OK, it lost a couple of points, but it’s still fourth. Body-Solid too has come back after faltering last year.

About doing well, wouldn’t you like to see this written about your company? “Octane is the ultimate supplier because they are easy to deal with, they always have product, they have strong selling margins, their product competes with all others in their category, they answer the phones, their warranty claims are easy to file, and their dealer reps are awesome.” Ironically, it’s sad to hear it’s a positive when a company answers the phones. Shouldn’t that be a given?

For perspective, we had 19 companies named in some way, the first time that’s gone below 20 since 2005; last year we had 22 and the year before was 23. Meanwhile, those at the top keep getting more votes. Seems the strong are getting stronger.

Which supplier do you consider the “most difficult” to work with?

Nautilus — 36%

Life Fitness — 9.7% *

Precor — 9.7% *

Vision Fitness — 9.7% *

FreeMotion Fitness — 6.9%

Landice — 4.1%*

Spirit — 4.1%*

Others receiving votes (in alphabetical order): AFG, Cybex, Diamondback, Muscle Dynamics, ProSpot, SciFit, SportsArt, Star Trac, True, Matrix, Yukon, York.

The biggest change on the list is the lack of Keys Fitness, which went bankrupt and shut down in 2008. What seemed to happen as a result is more votes were spread around among the next-ups on the list. Starting at the top: Our “winner” here hasn’t changed since we started this survey seven years ago. However, we felt there were fewer angry comments this year about the company, which includes votes for its other brands Schwinn, StairMaster and Bowflex, perhaps because people have just made an assumption about their interactions with it. “I don’t know where to begin,” wrote in one respondent. Another respondent wrote in general about suppliers perceived as poor to work with, “They all need to go down with General Motors.” And, lastly, “Nautilus seems not to care if you purchase from them or not.” Ouch.

Our second-place “best” supplier, Precor, is also part of a three-way tie for second place as “most difficult,” with one comment standing out: “Not as ‘partnership-oriented’ as almost all other vendors.” Life Fitness has stayed on this list — one of the three tied for second — with comments noting the need for better service and retailer support. Vision? This has been a developing story and not in a good way. Last year, it pulled up onto the “most difficult” list for the first time after several years of either winning, tying or being highly ranked as “best.” The change has been dramatic, with comments changing from raves about support to ones like these: “No service, no quality control, no accountability,” “staff turnover has proved to be a problem, no clear direction,” and “customer service has been destroyed in the consolidation of the various Johnson Health divisions.” If the leaders there have a vision and want to save Vision, there is no time to waste. We had 19 companies named as “most difficult” this year, compared to 23 last year, which includes ProSpot which faded to black in spring 2009.

As always, a couple of retailers tell us they have simply eliminated headaches: “I’ve long since quit dealing with problematic suppliers.” Business is too tough these days — can we all agree on that? — to put up with nonsense. Message: Be nice, return calls, act like a partner … or you will be dumped.

Please rank, in order, your top-selling categories this year of all types of fitness equipment and accessories.

No. 1

Ellipticals – 64.7%

Treadmills – 29.4%

No. 2

Treadmills – 64.7%

Ellipticals – 29.4%

No. 3

Recumbent bikes – 38%

Home gym, traditional – 26.4%

Home gym, functional/cable – 17.6%

Last year, ellipticals for the first time overtook treadmills as the top-selling category quite strongly. This year, oddly enough, they hung onto the No. 1 slot, but gave up some margin (64.7% vs. last year’s 75.7%). The same basic configuration happened in the second-place “top-selling” slot with treadmills still taking the top position but giving up some margin. Meaning? Perhaps with the weakness of the economy, more folks found they could get a better overall treadmill for a little less money OR then one piece of equipment, i.e. a treadmill, could satisfy the entire household rather than spending the money on two pieces. In the third-place slot, recumbent bikes still were No. 1 with home gyms/traditional followed by home gyms/functional. Although not high enough to assign a percentage, a handful of retailers voted for “A-Trainers” (the hybrid elliptical alternative piece) as their No. 3, and we predict that category will continue to grow. Also of note is that a few retailers voted for both upright stationary bikes and indoor studio cycles as their Nos. 1 or 2; we think they are speaking to the same kind of bike frankly (an indoor cycle), and we also think that may speak to the financial times since an indoor bike can cost less and give users a lot for their money.

What is your overall fastest-growing product category?

Ellipticals – 33.3%

Home gyms, functional/cable – 14.5%

Dumbbells, adjustable/selectorized – 7.2%

Ellipticals as “fastest-growing,” despite their top-selling ranking, above, are losing ground although they still top the list. About a third this year called them fastest-growing, compared to 59 percent last year and 81 percent the year before that. Those are big declines. We don’t think it’s because they are necessarily less popular, but there are other things to consider these days that have gotten better. Plus, ellipticals aren’t “The New Thing” they once were and are lacking the must-have buzz. Interesting is that the next two “fastest-growing” are both in the strength-training area, which has seen growing interest in the consumer press for health and wellness. And many of the products are just becoming easier to use and understand. Functional/cable home gyms eked up just a bit to 14.5 percent from last year’s 13 percent. Last year, there wasn’t a significant percentage for any other single category as a third place (heck, two years ago, ellipticals were so dominant we didn’t even name a second), but this year we found enough votes for adjustable multi-weight (selectorized) dumbbells to list them also as third (see also our story on multi-weight dumbbell innovations and products in the SNEWS Fitness 2009 magazine by clicking on We also found a scattering of votes for things like rubber tubing, balance and accessory items. A few respondents credited that interest to customer inquiries about such alternative workouts as P90X. Despite a continued emphasis on cardio-training, strength training — with whatever piece of equipment or gear — is not to be ignored.

How were your sales for 2008 compared to 2007?

Up between 1% – 5% — 12.5%

Up between 6% – 10% — 4.2%

Up between 11% – 16% — 8.3%

Way up! (more than 16%) – 4.2%

About the same (even) – 11.1%

Down between 1% – 5% — 5.6%

Down between 6% – 10% — 9.7%

Down between 11% – 15% — 9.7%

Down between 16% – 20% — 16.7% (new tier)

Way down (ouch) – 6.8%

Considering the economic situation, we added one more tier that went one more step down. Yikes, we had no idea how many would actually check that, but check it they did with it reaping more votes than any other — putting a real rubberstamp on how bad it’s been. A few said the spiral downward didn’t really start until mid- or late 2008. For example, one respondent said the store was “doing great” until October 2008 — then WHAM. Another said sales were up for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2008, by a whopping double-digit but will be down that much for this fiscal year. If you compare these trends with those from our survey from even a year ago, you can see the tweak downward. In 2008, we reported the most respondents had said business was actually up between 6 percent and 10 percent (with 19.5 percent checking that box), while the second highest tier checked was by those who were down between 1 percent and 5 percent (18.2 percent checking that). Looking back: For 2005, eight of 10 said “up;” for 2006, six of 10 said up; for 2007, about four of 10 said “up;” for 2008, 3.7 of 10 said “up;” and for 2009, three of 10 said “up.” Not a trend to ignore.

Our Methodology

In mid-April, we sent emails to retailers around the country, big and small, new and well-established, in small towns and in the biggest cities, inviting them to take our survey. We also wrote a story on SNEWS online seeking respondents, and our survey was promoted in a newsletter from the Health & Business Expo. We also sent several reminder emails. Each time we asked retailers to go to a secure website run by a third-party survey provider and take our personally designed survey. We reminded retailers frequently on the survey that we were looking for comments and votes related to the previous calendar year, 2008. We did not influence votes with lists of company names; rather, we asked a question and let respondents write-in their choices. We scanned responses frequently, accepting only one survey from each retail business. After about six weeks, we closed the survey so we could get to tallying.

Where are the full results?

Complete survey result details are a special feature available only to SNEWS All Access subscribers. To subscribe, or to upgrade a SNEWS Freebie limited-access subscription, visit

>> Click here to seePart 2 covering the strength category as well as a look at the development of kettlebells. 

>> Click here to see Part 3 covering accessories as well as our annual “thought” questionsasking for insights this year on social networking and economic survival.

>> Click here to see Part 4 covering cardio equipment, including treadmills, ellipticals, bikes and the developing A-Trainer category.

The Fine Print

>> Tied companies (marked with an “*”) for “best” and “most difficult” are listed alphabetically on the list and all are considered statistically equal in terms of ranking.

>> All answers have been rounded up to the nearest 0.5 percent, and since we don’t name every single company name or category with a percent, the percentages may not total 100 percent.

It’s a no-no to reprint: The SNEWS Fitness Retailer Survey may not be reproduced for redistribution of any kind, in whole or part, including for promotional or sales purposes of any kind, to consumers or the trade, without the written consent of SNEWS. Contact SNEWS at for reprint details and restrictions.