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Five Questions to Ask When Purchasing Fitness Equipment

Rob Bishop

After years of trying out new fitness equipment, weighing the many options out there and regularly pulling the trigger on breathtakingly high-priced purchases, we feel like we have a handle on the process.

 

If you’re serious about purchasing, it behooves you to go to trade shows and really look at the equipment. (Photo courtesy of Brian Ebner)If you’re serious about purchasing, it behooves you to go to trade shows and really look at the equipment. (Photo courtesy of Brian Ebner)

After years of trying out new fitness equipment, weighing the many options out there and regularly pulling the trigger on breathtakingly high-priced purchases, we feel like we have a handle on the process. We rarely make big mistakes. Well — let's say, instead, that we rarely end up with expensive white elephants on our floor, because in point of fact, there's a different sort of mistake we've made regularly.

This is a major digression, but indulge us. More than once, we've made some little improvement to one of our clubs that completely overshadows an enormous investment in fitness equipment. A good example is the key rack we put up for members who wanted a place to store just their keys when they didn't want to use the locker room for whatever reason.

We weren't especially motivated to put up a key rack. We didn't want to be responsible for someone walking off with someone else's keys, and we didn't really have a convenient place for it. But after many requests, we acquiesced, and the key rack went up at the same time $50,000 worth of Cybex selectorized equipment rolled in. The compliments on the key rack went on for weeks. While the new equipment was appreciated, it felt sort of like buying a kid a new toy and having the box be a bigger hit than the toy itself. "This key rack is awesome! Oh, and thanks for the $50,000 worth of new equipment."

None of this takes away from the fact that, on the whole, we enjoy purchasing fitness equipment and find the process quite gratifying. There's a lot to it — a lot of vendors to investigate and features to compare. For us, and we assume for most of you, price is a huge issue. But like most things in life, it's not just the price but the value you get for that price.

When we buy fitness equipment, here are the questions we ask ourselves:

1. What are we going to get rid of?

We really wish more gym operators started with this question when they consider buying new equipment. Please, we're begging you, get rid of something. We cannot count the number of fitness facilities we have been in that look like used equipment warehouses. They are overcrowded, intimidating and typically look awful, with shiny new equipment sitting next to pieces with ripped pads and rusted frames. We've seen machines wedged under staircases where a user could barely access them and simply been baffled by how that could be acceptable. So please, Rule 1: Get rid of something with every new piece you bring in. Empty floor space is not the enemy.

2. What's out there?

When was the last time you really looked at the ads in your favorite trade magazine? When you are serious about purchasing equipment, really look at them, and visit the vendors' websites. Determine what they are doing, what their themes are, and think about how their stuff would look in your facility. And then get on a plane to a trade show. (This seems like a good place to shamelessly plug the 2012 Athletic Business Conference — in New Orleans, baby!) If you are making a major purchase, it behooves you to use the industry trade shows to investigate and/or purchase.

For a smaller purchase, your vendor might be able to arrange a visit to a nearby facility, but have you ever really tried to look at a piece of fitness equipment in someone else's gym? Just like it might be nice to see a piece of furniture at a friend's house, are you really going to start throwing the cushions off and bouncing up and down on it?

In other words: Go to a trade show, get your hands dirty, meet the people behind the equipment, and narrow down your choices.

3. Do our favorite people have our favorite equipment?

Do you have an equipment vendor that you've used before? If you like the relationship and the service you've received, then that vendor likely needs to be on your short list of contacts. But people move around, so what happens when your favorite salesperson jumps ship to a competitor? You know he or she will be calling, but do you like what his or her new company has to offer?

We try to find a balance. If we don't connect with and trust the people who would be our frontline, day-to-day contacts, then we'll have a hard time buying the equipment, even if it is our favorite. We know that ongoing maintenance and support are perhaps as important as the equipment itself, and the first time you have something break that is one day over warranty, you'll appreciate having the right people on your side.

On the other hand, the best people in the world can't get us to purchase equipment that we feel is unsuitable for us.

4. What bells and whistles are most important?

This is a huge factor. Cardio machines are becoming more like home theaters. Will that matter to your prospects when they are touring your club and thinking of joining? Maybe more will join because of the "wow" factor. Will it matter to your members when they are using the machines? You can buy treadmills with functions that will keep your members engaged for hours, but if you have the kind of folks who like to hit "start" and walk for 30 minutes, they may not care.

If you are purchasing group cycling bikes, you could spend anywhere from $800 to $2,000 per bike. Certainly, the higher-end bikes often have features to help protect them from damage caused by sweat, which may more than justify the additional cost. On the other hand, when you need to buy 15, 20 or 50 new bikes, those extra features may not matter if the ride is fundamentally the same on all of the models.

We'd love to have a weight room that looks like a Division I varsity weight room, our logo on every plate and on the floor of the power racks. How cool would that be? We just can't imagine ever being able to justify the expense.

That said, we encourage you to splurge somewhere. Choose a technical feature here, a splash of color there, an upgrade over there, but choose wisely based on what your members and prospects will enjoy the most.

5. How do we get the biggest bang for the buck?

In our experience, buying cardio machines in conjunction with selectorized and free weight equipment has always yielded our best deals with vendors. The top of the food chain is cardio equipment. These have the best margins for the manufacturers and are typically their flagship items. Next comes selectorized and then plate-loaded stations. The prices on these machines seem to become much more favorable when paired with a cardio purchase. Then you start getting into the free weight pieces. Whether you are looking at some of the higher-end, rubber-coated, easy-to-grip plates and dumbbells, or you just want as much iron as you can get, it always pays to buy these items as part of a larger purchase.

From the manufacturers' point of view, this makes sense. They want to brand your facility with their equipment, and if they can take everything from the high-end cardio to the low-end iron and flat benches, they can make it much more worth your while. Naturally, you may simply need only a few pieces here and there, or you may want to mix and match based on what you think is "Best in Class." There's no right or wrong answer, but if you want the most bang for your buck, you may have to accept some pieces that aren't your favorite in order to get the negotiating leverage that comes from sticking with one vendor.

We wish we could do more equipment purchasing, because it's fun. It's iron and weights and laying out what's going to go where. It's going from booth to booth at a trade show with pens and paper in hand, meeting the vendors and seeing who and what we like best. It's out with the old and in with the new, and taking a moment when it's all in place to say, "How cool is this?"

Just be sure to bring your new equipment in on a day when a key rack isn't going up.

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