Fitness in America is television and happy-talk TV health ministers like Regis Philbin (Healthstyles), Joanie Greggains (Morning Stretch) and Charlene Prickett (It Figures). And don't forget The Richard Simmons Show and all those sexy girls on Orion's Twenty Minute Workout. Or that late, not-so-great situation comedy, Shapin Up. R.I.P.
Fitness in America is magazines, publications like Shape and New Body that have sprung from nowhere to cover the public's insatiable thirst for fitness information. There are some 23 such publications, according to a recent issue of Marketing & Media Decisions. And have we got a cover billing for you: "Herpes: Exercise May Help." From the National Enquirer? Nope, Fit, July 1983.
In short, fitness in America is a lot of stuff besides fitness. Or, as one market researcher says of the fitness industry, "This is a business with a lot of smoke."
And where a market researcher sees smoke, there's sure to be money. Smart Inc., a market research firm in Wilton, Conn., puts the fitness products industry's sales for 1984 at $900 million-plus, an increase of 33% over '83. That figure doesn't begin to present the whole picture, because it doesn't include sales to institutions such as schools and health clubs; sales of videos and books, which are almost impossible to gauge; and sales of fitness apparel, which according to Jim Spring, president of Smart, is the only area outdistancing product sales. Fitness apparel sales increased by 35% in 1984, to an estimated $500 million.
And the sky, it seems, could be the limit. Just as computer companies sprouted like mushrooms in Silicon Valley in the last decade, dozens of companies specializing in fitness products have suddenly appeared. Most are relatively small, privately owned and extremely secretive about their finances. One exception is Soloflex Inc. in Hillsboro, Ore., a company that sells almost all of its $565 (plus $60 for shipping) iron-pumping machines through TV and magazine ads. Inventor-founder Jerry Wilson and his wife, Marilyn, own 97% of the Soloflex stock, and Wilson is proud to say that his company had $18 million in sales for fiscal '84 and expects that figure to increase to $25 million for '85.
According to Spring, profit margins at the retail level in the various segments of the fitness industry can be as high as 45%. Michael Wolf, a Ph.D in exercise physiology and a kind of self-appointed watchdog of the industry, remembers being amused by an ad for stationary bikes. "It said something like, 'Normally $499, now $449,' " says Wolf. "Well, I know what this model bike costs wholesale and it's about $230 to $260. But for a buyer with the power of a major metropolitan department store it's probably about $200. Still, at a markup of more than 100 percent that store couldn't keep them in stock."
That tells you all you need to know about customer demographics in the fitness industry. You can scan hundreds of product catalogs, mail-order brochures, fitness magazines, books and videos and see nothing but attractive lily-white faces. The industry's promotional and advertising emphasis is heavy on sex and celebs, implying that fitness is nothing less than a lifestyle made up of equal parts workout, trendy equipment and designer clothes. It's all one sweet, sweaty, sexy package that spells fitness chic, great in Beverly Hills or Manhattan's Executive Fitness Center—a sort of high-rise gym for high-powered types—but unknown on 125th Street in Harlem.
Sex and fitness are frequent bedfellows in most of the high-class men's skin magazines, but the fitness industry is hardly ignoring female customers. "The higher-quality, more expensive equipment is being bought by women," says Dave Ellis, national sales manager for Amerec, a Bellevue, Wash. equipment manufacturer. "I am totally surprised by the buying power of the woman in this market," says Irwin Broh, whose Des Plaines, Ill. marketing research firm does surveys for the National Sporting Goods Association. "I always thought women didn't like to sweat. I was wrong."
And there's little sign that the market is peaking. "The industry is coming out with new products to keep people interested," says Bob Carr, editor and co-publisher of Sporting Goods Business magazine. "People are trading up. The fitness people are going into TV advertising." Soloflex spent $1 million to advertise on network television last December and January; recently Nautilus, which is paying $500,000 a week for TV advertising, went on the air with commercials for home machines featuring Terri Jones, wife of Nautilus founder Arthur Jones.
Fitness is moving into corporate life, too. Xerox Corp. in Rochester, N.Y., Tenneco Inc. in Houston and Kimberly-Clark in Neenah, Wis. have all opened multimillion-dollar health and fitness centers for their employees. One branch of the respected Sports Training Institute in New York services only the top 150 executives of Morgan Stanley, a leading investment banking firm. The Campbell Soup Company has acquired a fitness-related firm, poured $1.5 million into an employee fitness center on the grounds of its Camden, N.J. plant and added the "Soup Is Good Food" tag-line to its commercials. It has, in essence, redefined itself in terms of fitness.