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Wal-Mart's Latest Rollback

America's Back operates fitness centers in Wal-Mart stores.

In March 2002, former health club operator Alan Pitts moved a large and cumbersome MedX lumbar-extension machine, initially designed to help physical therapists isolate and strengthen patients' lumbar spine muscles, into a busy truck stop on Interstate 80 outside of Grand Island, Neb. He charged truckers (whose lower-back muscles are particularly vulnerable to strain) $5 for three- to five-minute sessions on the machine and keenly observed that many of them shopped at the Wal-Mart across the highway.

Six months later, Pitts opened his first America's Back center in a Denver Wal-Mart incorporating smaller, more-affordable equipment that MedX had just developed. His goal: to change the way chronic back-pain sufferers perceive fitness.

"Our site at that truck stop was open for a little more than a year, and I learned a lot," says Pitts, founder and president of America's Back, a Minneapolis-based company that provides programs in which clients work with certified trainers to improve the health and fitness of their lower back while preventing further injury. "The only reason we closed it was because we learned that those long-haul truckers can't come in often enough to take advantage of the program. We consistently saw a lot of new people, but we didn't get a lot of long-term customers. If we could dot truck stops all over the country with America's Back, then the program would be efficient. But truckers shop at Wal-Mart. So if we grow the Wal-Mart connection, we'll serve the truckers."

And a lot of other people, too.

America's Back currently operates facilities in nine Wal-Mart Supercenters and two traditional Wal-Mart stores in the Denver area -- one of the first markets Wal-Mart officials offered Pitts. Each rectangular 450- to 500-square-foot center, usually located in the front of the store between a nail salon and a portrait studio, employs three full-time staff members who help users operate MedX's Core Spinal Fitness SystemT, the next generation of MedX equipment based on the machine that Pitts employed at that Nebraska truck stop. Today, the machines at America's Back centers target lumbar strength, torso rotation, abdominal isolation and cervical extension.

Pitts, who charges clients $49 a month, or a paid-in-advance annual fee of $500, says he hopes to open 30 new America's Back locations by 2006 and 500 more locations (including some freestanding centers) in 30 cities around the country by 2009.

"People say, 'Hmm, I'm going into a Wal-Mart to help my back get better -- that's a little weird,' " Pitts says. "But when you think about it, why shouldn't there be fitness opportunities at Wal-Mart? Some of the things Wal-Mart sells the least of are sporting goods and fitness products, because they're not on people's priority lists. Why don't we start making fitness a part of everybody's daily activity?"

Pitts claims he's not out to compete with health clubs and fitness centers. Rather, he's targeting individuals who would likely be intimidated by those environments. The mean age of America's Back clients is 58 for males and 56 for females. Workouts are short, and users can participate in their street clothes because there are no locker rooms. "I saw a void in the marketplace," Pitts says. "I think there is a huge opportunity for everyone in the fitness industry to change the way we deliver fitness to certain populations."

Some health clubs have also decided to enter the back-care business. The two Gainesville (Fla.) Health & Fitness Centers, for example, each use the Core system. Physicians, chiropractors and physical therapists even recommend the facilities to patients, who often eventually sign on as full-time members, says Gainesville Health & Fitness owner Joe Cirulli, who travels to trade shows and conferences around the country preaching the benefits of lumbar strength training to professionals in the fitness, medical and health-care fields.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart, despite its best publicity efforts, continues to be plagued by negative reactions in the marketplace to its cutthroat retail policies and full-speed-ahead expansion plans. (The company currently operates 1,383 traditional stores and 1,625 Supercenters, with plans to open at least 40 new stores and up to 250 Supercenters during the 2005 fiscal year beginning Feb. 1.) But despite his company's relationship with Wal-Mart, Pitts doesn't fret about the threat of a related backlash against America's Back. "I don't really pay much attention to that," he says. "I chose Wal-Mart simply because it's the biggest. No one is even close in terms of access to the public, and I wanted to reach the most people."

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