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SNEWS 2010 Fitness Retailer Survey – Part 1: Best, “most difficult,” plus sales trends

Finally, the first part of the results you’ve been waiting for. Here we present the first of four parts of our annual SNEWS Fitness Retailer Survey -- this part focuses on the “best” and “most difficult” suppliers, and also summarizes and analyzes certain sales and revenue trends. Results still coming: cardio, strength, accessories and more.

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The annual SNEWS® Fitness Retailer Survey has a big story to tell yet again about the industry, its evolution and its health. With so much to discuss, we have for the second year broken up the results into a four-part series to run over the next few weeks because we don’t want any single question’s tally and commentary to get lost in what is typically a long, information-packed feature. This way we hope you can spend a little more time digesting each installment better before moving on to the next. This week, we start with, yes, the results for “best” and “most difficult” companies, also adding in a few more general, yet quite insightful results about sales and revenue trends and growth or declines in overall categories. To come in our next three parts: trends and brands rankings in cardio, strength and accessories, plus some insights from retailers on hot topics.

Now published:

>> Strength-training equipment — We took our annual look at best brands, equipment and other trends and growth areas. Click here to see this part, presented on Aug. 9, 2010.

>> Cardio equipment — Our annual look at the top brands, equipment and other trends in the cardio segment. Click here to see this part, posted on Aug. 16, 2010.

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

For eight years, we’ve taken the pulse of the fitness specialty retail industry in the only independent survey that does that. And for eight years you have responded — for that we are grateful because the information, especially as it accumulates over the years, provides a wealth of insights about trends in categories, sales, industry health and business-building opportunities. This is also one way the entire industry can “talk” and share with each other about what is happening to gain important ideas about the overall industry.

We know everybody waits with bated breath for the vote count for “best” and “most difficult” supplier, but in your eagerness to check out those categories don’t ignore the rest of the insights, commentary and trends that could help you do some business planning. Sometimes the overall trends in top categories and niche markets can be eye-openers — listen, and you may cull ideas for your own business and products.

The questions basically remain the same each year, with a couple of special ones that come or go or change based on key product trends. We also, of course, ask our two annual questions that look for personal insights and a bit of commentary — this year we asked about industry trade shows and an industry association. (Comments from those will be in Part 4 in a few weeks.)

Overall, the North American specialty fitness retail market (our survey included both U.S. and Canadian retailers) seemed to stabilize a bit in 2009 after a couple of really rough years with the economic downturn. Just as the economy has begun to show some brighter signs, so has the fitness market. But just as the economy is not yet shining brightly again, neither has the fitness retail market. New stores? Yes. Some increases in sales? Yes. But retailers are getting resourceful to find those ekes upward — or just to flatten out declines. Last year, we added an additional “down” category where we ask about sales (16 percent to 20 percent down), and many retailers did choose that as their answer, unfortunately. This year, we keep that extra choice in the mix and, again, a good number selected it, although about 25 percent fewer than last year. Look for more on that below.

The annual caveat about our survey: We are not economists or statisticians. We ask simple questions and get straightforward answers. We then write up what we hear from the minds of those at the frontline — the retailers. Scientific? No. Truly insightful and honest? Absolutely. As usual, we lean to pure democracy: one retail business = one vote. Period. No matter if you have one store or 20 stores. And, when the retailers take the time to express what is happening in their businesses, with their sales and about their preferences and desires, the entire industry needs to take some time to read what they say. This is not trivial since these folks talk to the public day-in and day-out. They have their fingers on the pulse. And they tell us without mincing words what they think because of the trust established after eight years of the survey. We also know that manufacturers these days lobby their retailers not only to vote but also to vote for their company — yeah, really, we do know this. You thought it was a secret? But we also know that our retailers mostly speak their own minds since how they vote remains between them and SNEWS (although occasionally a manufacturer executive tries to sneak in, but it gains them nothing). We know we’ll get complaints, such as, “Why didn’t you ask this?” or “Why did you tally it THIS way and not THAT way?” (usually said because the other way would benefit that manufacturer). All worth listening to and we do gain our own insights. Listening is in fact the best way to gain insights. Below, and in the next few weeks, you too can listen.

If you have comments or suggestions — or want to make sure you as a retailer get personal notification of our next surveys — drop a note to We are here, and we’d like to hear from you.

To take a look at past surveys, click here.

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

Octane – 27.4%

Life Fitness – 20.9%

Precor – 16.1%

True Fitness – 9.7%

Body Solid – 8.1%

Inspire – 6.5%

Others receiving votes (in alphabetical order): BH Fitness, Bodycraft, Bodyguard, Hoist, Paramount, PowerBlock, Spirit, Vision

Forget for a moment which company is where on the list. What is really striking to us is that we only had 14 total companies named at all — only 14 that got at least one measly vote. Last year we had “only” 19, which was the first year the tally had sunk below 20 since 2005. What gives? An answer in our “most difficult” question says it all: “We don’t do business with difficult suppliers.” We think more and more retailers are reclaiming their businesses, so to speak. Granted, some retailers may still do business with some they deem a bit difficult, but that’s becoming fewer each year, it seems. And, to top that, fewer are actually even considered “best” or simply really great and easy to deal with — but rather just another supplier. Octane still dominates — fourth year in a row at the top and no signs of faltering. The others’ losses are its gains since it jumped from 18.3 percent of the vote a year ago to — yikes, is this possible? — 27+ percent of the vote this year. Congratulations, Octane!

Another big change is Life Fitness: It has dallied toward the bottom for a number of years, but this year it made the big leap back up the ladder to No. 2, more than quadrupling its percent. Granted, it now has more single dealers and has less of its cards with one (Busy Body). Nevertheless, if our respondents didn’t like the company, it wouldn’t get votes. Precor gained a few votes but was pushed down to third from second, and Bodyguard fell off the top list. Also of note in our small print — “Others receiving votes” — MIA totally is, for example, Accell Fitness, Landice, LeMond, LifeCore, PaceMaster and Star Trac. Yup, retailers are just getting choosier. They have to do it to survive.

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

Nautilus – 16.1%

Star Trac/ST Fitness – 11.1%

Precor – 11%

Johnson (AFG/Horizon, Vision) – 6.5% (tie)

Landice – 6.5% (tie)

LeMond – 4.8% (tie)

Spirit – 4.8% (tie)

Others receiving votes (in alphabetical order): Bodyguard, Body Solid, Cybex, Diamondback, FreeMotion, Hampton, LifeCore, Life Fitness, LifeSpan, Polar, Power Plate, Powertec, SportsArt, Spri, True, Woodway

You want the good news or the bad news first? OK, the good news is that Nautilus received fewer than half the votes it did last year. The bad news is that it’s still considered the No. 1 “most difficult” and some wrote-in they just don’t carry it anymore. In addition, we must note that in eight years of our survey, Nautilus has earned the top spot in this category every single year. Wrote in one respondent: “Do they even sell fitness equipment anymore? LOL.” Maybe the changes in late 2009 and early 2010 to return its focus to retail will help in the coming year.

In other good news, Life Fitness fell off the top list of “most difficult.” The bad, then, is for Star Trac/ST Fitness, which took one Olympic leap from nowhere to No. 2, only nudging out Precor for that questionable honor by the slimmest (and most insignificant) of margins. For Vision, the good news is it also fell off the list, having done its own hurdle upward last year, but the bad news for Vision is that it still did not reclaim a top spot on “best” (see above). Another spot of bad news came for LeMond: Never a company that even gained a mention in the past, it moved up onto the top of the “worst” for 2009.

Despite the fact that some manufacturers put up the permanently closed sign or merged with others, we actually had a huge jump in brands named — 24 this year from a mere 19 last year. (Note we said “brands” in this case since although Johnson is the company, specifically called out were its two retail brands.) Said one respondent about being “worst:” “Volume going belly up? Diamondback not stocking inventory? Raw Power going belly up?… Take your pick.” Maybe those on this list should perk an ear to what one retailer said about Octane as “best:” “They listen to their customers.” There we go with that “listen” stuff again.

How were your sales for 2009 compared to 2008?

Up between 1% – 5% – 4.7%

Up between 6% – 10% – 7.8%

Up between 11% – 16% – 10.9%

Way up! (more than 16%) – 3.1%

About the same (even) – 12.5%

Down between 1% – 5% – 6.3%

Down between 6% – 10% – 14.1%

Down between 11% – 15% – 10.9%

Down between 16% – 20% – 12.5%

Way down (ouch) – 7.8%

Overall, there isn’t huge change in the spread from last year. But if you look closely, you’ll find a few variations that could be an indication of the future. First, our new tier last year (down 16% – 20%) still got checkmarks but a little less — down to 12.5 percent of respondents compared to 16.7 percent a year ago. Although not as significant, the tier called “about the same” went up just a bit too, both of which on their own should indicate an evening of the keel. But the industry has definitely not sailed through the storm yet: If you tally all who said “up” in some amount, a couple of ticks fewer for 2009 agreed with that (26.5 percent vs. 29.2 percent). If you tally all the “downs” of any amount, things actually looked worse at the end of 2009 compared to a year earlier (51.6 percent vs. 41.7 percent). Those who said they were “even” were pretty even, with 2009 showing a slight step upward (12.5 percent vs. 11.1 percent). We think this is because the brunt of the economic storm didn’t really come to a boil for many until 2009 with some noting a year ago they didn’t see a lot of impact in 2008 until part way through the year.

In a separate question, we asked about commercial vs. retail sales and a number of respondents said that commercial was up compared to retail and they were actually doing less retail — not as if this is huge news, right?

Since our survey is taken in the early spring and very specifically asks about the previous calendar year, we suspect (and in fact know from talking to retailers in 2010) that for many the turnaround, albeit slow like an ocean liner, has started.

Please rank, in order, your top-selling categories this year of all types of fitness gear?

No. 1

Ellipticals – 64.2%

Treadmills – 30.2%

No. 2

Treadmills – 58.5%

Ellipticals – 30.2%

No. 3

Recumbent bikes – 45.3%

Home gym, functional/cable – 20.8%

Home gym, traditional – 9.4%

More changes in the ranks of “top-selling” equipment this year! If you remember, two years ago, for the first time, our forecast of ellipticals overtaking treadmills became reality — taking over very strongly as the top item going out the door. The percent of retailers voting for ellipticals of all kinds as “top-selling” sank a bit a year ago and stayed nearly even with that this year. As for No. 2, treadmills now lost some ground there — dropping from 64.7 percent of the vote to 58.5 percent. Nope, not huge, but enough for one to raise an eyebrow and wonder what’s up. Always the workhorse, we think the treadmill may continue to lose some ground to alternative trainers and other pieces. What isn’t counted in these results, above, are the “A-trainers” and some seated ellipticals that were named separately.

Our No. 3 best-selling also has a huge change indicative of a trend. Recumbent bikes, nearly always the winner here, gained a significant number of votes — not unexpected when you perhaps consider the demographic that continued to buy last year and its needs and desires. But look below that — and here is the trend that should catch your eye: Traditional fixed-arm home gyms have always been right there, but lo and behold, they dropped rather drastically below the votes for functional/cable gyms. The functional/cable trainers are indeed gaining some following — perhaps because they are now smaller footprints, come with smaller price tags, or brands know how to better show people what to do with them. A year ago, traditional pieces were 26.4 percent compared to cable gaining a lower 17.6 percent. This year? Cable trainers more than doubled, while traditional home gym sales dropped by nearly two-thirds. Statisticians or not, we say this indicates something to pay attention to.

What is your overall fastest-growing product category?

Ellipticals – 29%

Home gyms, functional/cable – 9.1% (tie)

Dumbbells, adjustable/selectorized – 9.1% (tie)

Kettlebells – 7.3%

Seems to be two things at play here in the second and third places: First, the economy — adjustable weights and kettlebells are less expensive ways to get strength-training, so perhaps these choices were influenced by finances. Two, individualization — if you can design your own thing, from shoes to bikes to purses, then how about using the equipment that can help you individualize your workout? i.e. adjustable dumbbells and kettlebells. Frankly, to see kettlebells move up this far is also significant of something that retailers should not ignore. They were pretty much nowhere to be found here last year and not a whisper the year before.

We’d like to stress another point here: We received a smattering of singular votes for areas that could be considered “funcational” or ‘balance” but did not feel free to class them together. The votes were for items or concepts such as “TRX,” “suspension training,” “balance” and “stability straining.” Step back and look at the big picture and what do you see? An overall trend toward just plain functional stuff. if we had counted the above concepts and products together, as a whole they would have risent to second place. Your takeaway? Don’t miss this (functional) train.

–Therese Iknoian

Our Methodology

In late 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 online. We also wrote a story on SNEWS seeking respondents, and we sent several reminder emails and wrote several reminder stories. 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, 2009. We did not influence votes with lists of company names; rather, we asked open-ended questions when it involved brands and let respondents write-in their choices. We scanned responses frequently, accepting only one survey from each retail business (and in fact deleted some repeats). After about six weeks, we closed the survey so we could start tallying.

The Fine Print

>> Tied companies for “most difficult” are listed alphabetically and are considered statistically equal in terms of ranking.

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

Where are the full results?

The results for the SNEWS Fitness Retailer will be presented in detailed analysis in a four-part series of reports about various segments of the survey (best/worst/overall trends as part 1, then cardio, strength, accessories/thought questions separate as the next three). Complete result details are a special feature available only to SNEWS All Access subscribers. To subscribe, or to upgrade from a SNEWS Freebie limited-access subscription, visit

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 survey@snewsnet.comfor reprint details and restrictions.