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SNEWS 2011 Fitness Retailer Survey – Part 1: best, 'most difficult,' plus sales trends

Finally, the first part of the results from the SNEWS Fitness Retailer Survey you’ve been waiting for. Just in time to size up before the coming Health & Fitness Business show and the 2011-12 busy season, you’ll find the first of four parts of our survey focusing on the “best” and “most difficult” suppliers, and analysis on certain sales and revenue trends. Surprises? You betcha. Results still coming in the next weeks: cardio, strength, accessories, and more.

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The annual SNEWS® Fitness Retailer Survey has a big story to tell yet again, taken at a time in late spring 2011 when soothsayers indicated the economy was getting better. The industry’s evolution, health and size are extremely different these days, and there are more changes afoot. Since per usual we have a lot to present, we have broken key results into four parts, all set to run before the annual retail Health & Fitness Business show opens its doors on Sept. 14.

We don’t want any one question’s results lost among the masses, so look for three more parts of survey results in the coming weeks. This way we hope you can spend a little more time digesting each installment better before moving on to the next. We start with the results for “best” and “most difficult” companies, and some insight into several sales and revenue trends. Ahead in our next three parts: more trends and brand rankings in cardio, strength and accessories.

For nine years now, we’ve taken the pulse of the fitness specialty retail industry in the only independent survey of its kind. For nine years, too, 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. We hope our survey in the last nine years has helped the industry in some way “share” what is going on across 50 states so everybody can gain ideas about its overall state. This is one piece of additional fodder SNEWS puts out for you on the state of the industry, coming a few months after the annual FitBiz report (click here to see that 2011 edition).

We think every single answer is vital to understand where the industry has been and is going. But, yes, we know everybody waits with bated breath for the vote count for “best” and “most difficult” suppliers. In your eagerness to check out those categories, don’t do yourself a disservice and ignore the rest of the insights, commentary and trends that could help you do some business planning. Look, listen and learn. Read between the lines a little. Compare to what you have seen at your store or in your region. And use all of this and that to formulate plans for improving your own business or 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. Our one “thought” question we posed about the industry, which we’ll present in part four, asked about your pet peeves and business time-wasters. Should be good reading!

Overall, the North American specialty fitness retail market (our survey included both U.S. and Canadian retailers, although our U.S. retailers respond in greater numbers) seemed to stabilize slightly more in 2010. It’s no secret that 2007 and 2008 were tough years, with 2009 just beginning to show a hint of stability – only after a number of stores and chains had shut down or gone bankrupt, sadly, in the previous two years. As our FitBiz report from Spring 2011 showed, the industry has shrunk considerably. It’s not time to hit the woo-hoo button yet of course.

Gleaned from answers are the below nuggets:

Smaller stores — Retailers who did survive are overall smaller. In our 2010 reports, we had nearly a third of respondents saying they had stores with average sizes of 2,000-2,999 square feet, with another one in three saying they had 4,000- to 5,999-square foot stores. And 21.9 percent noting the average as 3,000-3,999. NONE named “less than 2,000” as the stores’ average. This year? Most were 3,999 or under: Just over one in four (26 percent) said they had stores 3,000-3,999 square feet, while nearly one in five named 2,000-2,999 as the store average size. And another 15.6 percent indeed chose “less than 2,000” as the average.

Sales volumes lower – With smaller stores came also lower reported average sales volumes. This year, more respondents than in the past chose “less than $499,000” as where their sales stood (23.9 percent); the second largest group (22.5 percent) reported $1 million to $2 million; and the third largest was $500,000 to $1 million (15.5 percent). In other words, 38 percent chose sales volumes in 2010 as between $500,000 and $2 million. Compare that to 2009 when 45 percent chose sales volumes in the same range, but only 8.3 percent of that total – just over a third of this year’s number — named “less than $499.000.”

Sales stabilizing year-over-year – Despite that, a few retailers – obviously coming off mostly mediocre to horrible prior years – began to see slightly better sales overall in 2010. We kept the additional “down” category we added a year earlier (down 16 percent to 20 percent), but very few chose it. That’s good news. More details below to those answers

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 nine years of this survey. We also know that manufacturers these days lobby their retailers not only to vote but also to vote for their company – and you brands out there thought your lobbying was a secret? Lobby all you want, though. Most retailers speak their own minds since they know what they say stays between us.

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, then click on the jump to FItness Retailer Surveys.

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

True Fitness – 15%

LifeCore – 11.3% (tie for 2nd)

Life Fitness –11.3% (tie for 2nd)

Octane – 11.3% (tie for 2nd)

Precor – 7.5%

AFG/Horizon – 5.6% (tie for 4th)

Inspire Fitness – 5.6% (tie for 4th)

*Tied companies are listed alphabetically only within the group tied for that place, with the order no reflection on higher or lower values or rankings among the group.

Others receiving votes (in alphabetical order): Bremshey, Body-Solid, Diamondback, Nautilus, Power Tec, Spirit, Vectra, Vision, Waters

Lots of changes here but despite who is in what place and the gasps you may hear coming from the cubicles around you, we’d say the biggest change that we saw while counting votes was in how the votes were spread out. In past years, one or two companies had dominated – OK, one in particular. But this year, as you can see by the percentages, none were really that far apart. Parity? Is this good parity or not-so-good parity? The affect of losing a whole lot of doors in bankruptcies could have affected votes since some brands lost some distribution, which would translate into lost votes. Either way, it is suddenly any brand’s game right now. Make the right moves and retailers will like you. A lot. Retailers, which ones are left, are getting choosier.

Specifically speaking, True Fitness managed just a smidgeon more to win it by a nose after being in fourth last year. Octane lost votes after holding tight to this title for four consecutive years. It’s a horse race, for sure, though. Life Fitness started to regain some strength in last year’s results, going from the bottom of the list to a tie for second with both Octane and, get this, LifeCore. We bet there’ll be hootin’ and hollerin’ over there after this is released. It wasn’t even named last year and here littl’ ol’ LifeCore is standing shoulder to shoulder with Octane and Life Fitness. Congrats, LifeCore team!

Third place, Precor, is also just a nose back, and our tie for fourth includes AFG/Horizon and Inspire – both honestly so close.

What is still significant this year as it was last year is that only 16 companies were named at all. That’s up from last year’s measly 14, but still down from years past when never fewer than 19 got a mention (2009) and normally 20 or many more garnered votes. Part of this answer is reflected in what was written-in for the fill-in-the-blank question by a number of respondents: “None,” or “I can’t say.” Meaning some retailers may be doing business with a manufacturer or distributor but not finding true satisfaction in any. Comments about winners included: “on-time delivery,” “easy to deal with,” “they do what they say they’ll do,” “fast delivery,” “Quick response,” and “great communication and service.”

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

Johnson (AFG/Horizon, Vision) – 17.5%

Schwinn/Nautilus – 12.5%

Star Trac/ST Fitness – 10%

Icon/FreeMotion – 7.5% (tie for 4th)

Landice – 7.5% (tie for 4th)

Life Fitness – 7.5% (tie for 4th)

USA/Troy – 7.5% (tie for 4th)

*Tied companies are listed alphabetically only within the group tied for that place, with the order no reflection on higher or lower values or rankings among the group.

Others receiving votes (in alphabetical order): BH Fitness, Body-Solid, Bremshey, CAP, Diamondback, Keys, Legend, NuStep, Power tec, Precor, Spirit, SportsArt, Spri, True, TuffStuff

Yes, yes, we know, we had to treat the Johnson Health Tech listing a little differently here. Above, for “best,” retailers wrote either AFG/Horizon or Vision; here they listed all of them, including Vision, in one. But that pushed the group of Johnson brands as a whole to the top of a list — where nobody wants to be. We honestly aren’t sure why when it comes to “best” they were separated, but when it came to “most difficult” they were thought of as a group.

Votes for Schwinn/Nautilus rose again after last year allowed others to get closer to its clamp on being “most difficult,” and we believe this may change dramatically again because of the transition in holdings and ownership in the past 12-18 months. Star Trac, also, stayed on the list – another company in transition, thouogh — and we expect some changes in a year on this. FreeMotion/Icon managed to get into the top of the list for the first time. Not a first anybody wants.

Here’s the part to focus on: No matter how good some retailers think you are, others won’t like you much. Despite Life Fitness’ climb upward on the “best” list, it sill climbed upward on the “most difficult” list.

Again, just like on the “best” list, we had a spread of votes with an even tie among four companies for fourth and not huge differences above that. Comments about those named included: “too stuffy,” “too corporate,” “they just don’t get it,” “they have the stupidest pricing policy,” and “slow to respond.”

How were your sales for 2010 compared to 2009?

Up between 1% – 5% – 23.4%

Up between 6% – 10% – 11.7%

Up between 11% – 16% – 9.1%

Way up! (more than 16%) – 13%

About the same (even) – 10.4%

Down between 1% – 5% – 10.4%

Down between 6% – 10% – 6.5%

Down between 11% – 15% – 6.5%

Down between 16% – 20% – 1.3%

Way down (ouch) – 0%

The year before last we added an additional “down” category of 16-20 percent, pushing the “ouch” category really to mean below that even. Sad, but true. We were forced into it. This year only 1.3 percent chose down 16 percent or more, compared to 20.3 percent a year ago between those two categories. That’s one HUGE change! And, happily, not one respondent picked the “ouch” category (for down more than 20 percent), compared to 7.8 percent last year who chose that.

In addition, in other good news, the total that said they were up in some way was 57.2 percent compared to 26.5 a year earlier – significantly more than double. Total percentages tallied of all the “down” categories is a mere 24.7 percent compared to 51.6 percent a year ago, which was actually slightly worse that a year before that. Those who claimed an even keel were down about 2 percent, to 10.4 percent from 12.5 percent a year ago.

Overall this is good news showing that weaker retailers who weighed down the industry are gone and those who are left are doing better.

Since our survey is taken in the late spring and very specifically asks about the previous calendar year, we suspect that this year may change a lot with the economy showing some additional weakness again.

In the next three weeks, look for survey results for the cardio, strength and accessory categories.

Therese Iknoian

Our Methodology

In May, 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, 2010. 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 or those from inappropriate businesses to include). After about six weeks, we closed the survey so we could start tallying.

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 separately as the next three parts). 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

The Fine Print

>> Tied companies for “best” and “most difficult” are listed alphabetically within that place and are considered statistically equal in terms of ranking within the group.

>> All answers have been rounded up to the nearest 10th 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.

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.