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Know Your Market and Find a Good Vendor

Knowing your market, what they will buy and how much, and how to find a good vendor are the keys to retail success.

While fitness is your primary business, a well-thought-out retail shop can enhance the experience for members. "The most important thing is to choose retail products that support the services you provide," says Kate Mearns, spa director of the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg, Va., and former president of the International Spa Association, Lexington, Ky. Whether it is equipment such as yoga mats, balls or bands, or spa products such as lotions and skincare products, retail products can lend credibility to your brand, and remind users about where they experienced it first. "Finding products that are unique to the property is so important," says Mearns. "They become a link that takes the guest back to their visit. When they spread that yoga mat out at home, they'll remember their experience."

Patty Ivey, owner of three Down Dog Yoga Studios in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, agrees. "Yoga is our largest source of income, and we base our retail on an extension of that experience in a way that the guest can bring it home with them," she says. Down Dog sells the music it uses, the incense the instructors burn, and yoga mats, props and clothing. "For us, it is about the whole [experience] - the education process," says Ivey. "It's not about the yoga poses, as much as how yoga plays into a person's life."

"We are fortunate that people know our name," says Lara Price, buyer for The Coop, the retail boutique at the Cooper Fitness Center at Craig Ranch, McKinney, Texas. "We present such a great message of preventive medicine and wellness that we have always done well with our logo items. The Cooper name stands for wellness and health." It is a message and brand name that members want to take with them.

Product lines

Fitness facilities can have good luck with women's workout clothes, if they choose the right style and color. Ivey suggests buying items that are an average size with bright colors for the tops and dark colors for the bottoms. Size-wise, it is Ivey's experience that clientele who are not comfortable with their weight buy clothes in an environment that is more private - not a yoga studio - so she chooses a few mid-range sizes only. Color-wise, in the D.C. area, women tend to wear black bottoms and a brighter top. Whatever their clothing choices, Ivey keeps her inventory numbers low, her brands unique and the patterns rotating frequently. "We try not to stay with the same brands, besides our core items, and we definitely are not interested in sitting on a lot of inventory," she says.

Price finds that The Coop does more business with women's clothing lines, as well. "What works in our shop are things for moms-on-the-go. They drop the kids off at school, work out, go to the grocery store, etc. I'd call it yoga-wear." The Coop does offer running shorts and things like that as a courtesy for both men and women, but not technical training gear. People can go to a sports store for those items.

"[E]very three months, [we] order for the following season," says Price. "There are certain lines that do really well, so we carry a lot of them. Our core line is black pants, capris and shorts, both loose-fitting and tight. We also have a lot of chocolate brown and white items. For some reason, plum and maroon are also selling well right now. However, the color green just sits forever - in both stores. [There is also a Coop at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas.]"

If your facility is a "destination" of sorts, or your image is branded in your community, then offering logoed items is a great way to let people take a little bit of your facility home, and an even better marketing tool for you when they wear their caps and T-shirts. "We have a lot of recognition in the D.C. area, and a lot of national recognition, as well," says Ivey. "People who travel will buy our ball caps as souvenirs and gifts."

The Coop and the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg also do well with their logoed items. "We have a logo section of The Coop and sell caps, visors, polos, three-quarter-sleeve shirts, gym bags, water bottles, etc.," says Price.

Fitness facilities looking to enhance their brand name will find that logoed items are easy to get in relatively small quantities. There are national and local companies that will embroider or silkscreen your logo onto just about anything. It's a good idea to ask for a sample of the product before committing to it, however. Something that looks cute and cool in a photo can be cheesy and cheap upon closer inspection. You do get what you pay for.

Vendors

Choosing reputable and unique products is the key to any successful retail endeavor. Many go in search of preferred vendors through their local community, online or at conventions where vendors show their latest and greatest product lines. However, "'preferred vendors,' to me, has a different connotation," says Mearns. "In my mind, it is not just a good price for the product, but also suggests a good working relationship, from service, to the value the company and product add. ... We look for things like 'green' initiatives, marketing support, discounts on displays to showcase items and, of course, good pricing." Choosing preferred vendors is sometimes a rigorous process.

Some vendors will offer an exclusive line to your facility, with some negotiation. "We don't want to sell the same thing that someone can get anywhere else," says Mearns. "You can buy a yoga mat at Whole Foods, [so] we need to differentiate the products we sell, and bring in lines that are not well-known. If all the yoga studios are selling them, then they are not exclusive."

The most successful shops choose retail items based on their audience. Resorts, for instance, choose items that allow guests to take home their experience, and also provide the convenience of items that guests may have forgotten at home. Yoga studios offer products that their instructors have come to value. Fitness centers can offer a little of both, such as socks, headphones and towels, but also yoga mats, workout clothes and exercise DVDs.

"Whatever your retail product line," says Mearns, "you are going to have a mix of core products and new items that keep things fresh." But, staying on top of the trends can be tricky. Vendors either bring their newest items to you, or you can go in search of them online or at trade shows. Keep in mind, though, that if what you offer is selling well, it may not be necessary to mix things up.

Shop displays

Display in your pro shop is so important. Customers need to see the items easily, and need to see new items frequently. People tend to get bored or begin to ignore the same old thing. Keeping items fresh is the key to keeping your retail moving. Cooper is known for its vitamins and books on health and fitness, and those items are always the first thing people see when they enter The Coop. "We want to change the item [display] frequently, even if it's the same stuff," says Price. Changing displays is more than putting this shirt over there, it's changing the direction in which displays are facing and changing the layout of the store. The Coop changes things around weekly.

The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg has its logoed items right up front. T-shirts, both long- and short-sleeved, and polo shirts are a hit with tourists looking to take their experience home with them.

Know your market

It can't be said enough: Even with all of this preparation, the most important component of a successful retail shop is knowing your market. Price suggests asking yourself the following questions:
  1. Who is my market (age, gender)? "The average age at Craig Ranch is 45 to 55, and the average age in Dallas is 55 to 65," she says. "Their retail items are different." Also, "Eighty percent of our sales at Craig Ranch are to women," says Price. "We don't carry a lot of men's items."
  2. How much are they willing to spend? "You can't have a sale every week, so choose items that are accessible to your audience," says Price.
  3. What are they buying? If yoga-wear is moving well at your facility, there is your market - for now. But, always keep your eye out for the next new thing that is hot on the market!
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