To a fitness club owner, the term merchandising can mean any number of things: floor layout, interior design, signage, point-of-purchase, in-club promotions or product mix and services. Adapting these proven concepts to the world of e-commerce, for example, selling products, including memberships online, opens up a new perspective when designing or updating a Web site in order to be more profitable. So, envisioning your online presence as bricks, not bits, how should you plan or update your corporate Web site layout to invite customers to step inside? Which direction should they head once there, and what will make them stay? Most important, what will make them buy and why will they return?
FLOOR PLANS AND SIGNAGE
Traditional retail floor layout is based on traffic flow patterns and return on square foot of selling space. There is usually a strategy to have some high-volume and high-interest areas in the front to bring customers in, plus other sections in the back to move traffic through the store or club. Well-placed, easy-to-read directions add to the ease of the online shopping experience for your customers. In the Web world, design elements such as graphics, tool bars, buttons and hot-linked text can become your signage in the same way a fitness store or health club uses department header signs, ceiling banners and aisle markers to point the way to customers. Fitness maven Cathe Friedrich (www.cathe.com) gives the visitors to her web site a multitude of directions to go from her home page using a layout similar to a news site. To ease product ordering, she allows a shopper to click to her online store or to request a printed product catalog. The New York-based Crunch Fitness web site (www.crunch.com) opens to a colorful semi-circle graphic showing the different areas of the site, including “the goods” where apparel and accessory products are featured. Displaying easily visible links from the home page makes navigation around the web site similar to an easy stroll down the aisles of a store.
SIGN UP HERE
By now, most Web retailers know the value of e-mail marketing and are savvy in capturing the consumer's contact information — a long-standing trick of direct marketers. While sites should always get the customer to the product as fast as possible, any cataloger will tell you that the value proposition for future business is in building a database of prospects. Within the Web world, the e-mail address is gold in this regard and can launch a site owner into a lucrative online business if handled with care and security.
With fitness sites, some get right to the point in asking, such as BGI Fitness (www.bgifitness.com), with an obvious box in the upper left corner of the home page. Others have crafty activities on areas of their site to draw consumers in and convince them to tap out a bit of personal information in exchange for a gift, coupon or other prize. Greenwood Athletic Club (www.greenwoodathleticclub.com) features a free e-mail newsletter to anyone who registers their e-mail address, as do many other clubs and retailers.
Another idea is displayed on the Dolphin Fitness Club's web site (www.dolphinfitnessclubs.com). Visitors can send e-postcards to friends that offer a free one-week guest pass. In this way, the New York-based club not only captures the sender's e-mail address, but also the e-mail address of the recipient.
UNIQUE MERCHANDISE MIX
Just as the home page of a Web site must attract visitors to come inside, the mix of products offered must tell a story. One innovative way to get initial and repeat customers is to offer online-only products or information to entice repeat visits. For example, monthly in-store promotions are posted on the Fitness Experience web site (www.fitnessexperience.com) site, letting Web consumers know what current specials are featured at the physical store locations in their area.
Another idea is to emphasize products and services that are different from the competition, and using the Web site to make those offerings bigger than life. One club offers a children's program called “Kid's World.” At World Gym of Fitness (www.worldgymyuma.com) in Yuma, AZ, a major section of the site is devoted to pictures, policies, schedules, prices, commitment to safety — every detail a parent could want to know.
Virtual tours have become a must-have for many health clubs, not to mention fitness stores with their wide assortment of equipment and accessories. There are several ways to feature a tour online, as demonstrated by several sites.
For example, a basic tour can be composed of scanned photos all posted on one page, allowing the visitor to scroll down to view the order of images, as shown by MetroFlex of Tampa Bay (www.metroflex.com). Another club, Foster City Athletic Club (www.fcathleticclub.com), invites the visitor to click on links to see and read about different club areas and programs, which are divided on separate Web pages. Even more elaborate is the club site for 7 Flags Fitness & Racquet Club in Clive, OH (www.7flags.com) where consumers can click on the tour and easily transition from one page to the next by barely moving their mouse.
DISPLAYS AND MUSIC
Remember walking past the large display windows at your local department or sporting goods store as a young child? What caught your eye and made you stop to watch? How about when you walked inside and heard seasonal music or watched a product demonstration? Technical web enhancements can capture some of the same mystique. Many e-tailers decorate their home pages and offer Web specials on a seasonal basis, with some changing the offer each week. The idea — a takeoff from traditional store merchandising — is that visitors will tie their current mood and interests directly to the marketing message. Along that same line, another innovative idea is to add audio clips to your site. Visitors to the Tampa Bay MetroFlex site (www.metroflex.com) are greeted by a friendly taped welcome from club management.
Coupons always attract price-conscious shoppers, and more sites are offering downloadable versions to print out immediately. Many health clubs such as Bally Fitness (www.ballyfitness.com) offer coupons at their site for a trial membership if visitors register at the same time. Fitness stores can take the lead from their sporting goods counterparts and send out inexpensive yet effective e-mail coupon offers to their database. To redeem the offer, the consumer simply prints out the message and brings in the announcement to a physical store or inputs a code number into their online order.
WHERE'S THE SALESPERSON?
A constant complaint in retail stores is the lack of knowledgeable help. As the Web has matured, there are more ways to give people the information they need through the assistance of “live” staff. While technology does allow for real-time conversations similar to the instant messaging features of AOL or MSN, there are other effective, yet less costly, ways for Web merchants to stay in touch with the customer.
At the online store for Copeland's Sports (www.shopsports.com), their fitness store section offers an “Ask the Expert” link. When clicked, a pop-up window features the photo, credentials and e-mail link to Robert Marti, the online fitness specialist. So, before a consumer even asks the question, he or she knows the answer will come from a qualified source. This tactic also underscores the credibility of the online retailer by showing they have knowledgeable staff equipped to answer the most technical fitness-related questions. Fitness clubs can do the same thing by posting tips from their trainers.
Another concept is promoting talented staff via their own products. Axiom Fitness (www.axiomfitness.com), a club based in Fairfield, N,J., employs fitness trainers featured on MTV. Their expertise has been translated into product videos available on the club site. When shoppers click to order, they are passed through to Amazon.com, who manages the transaction and fulfillment.
Now, take a trip through your Web site and see it with the eyes of a shopper. Would you stop to browse or click out the door as fast as possible? To get into the merchandising mode, fitness merchants and club owners need to start thinking inside the box. This means looking at your site from the inside out.
The home page for Gold's Gym (www.goldsgymwen.com) in Wenachee, WA boldly announces: “Warning…entering this site will expose you to material that is fitness oriented. Prolonged exposure may cause you to lose body fat, gain muscle, increase cardiovascular endurance, eat healthy and feel better. I ACCEPT; I DECLINE.”
The choice is yours.
Kellee “Sparky” Harris is a freelance writer and columnist specializing in the Web and e-commerce for the sporting goods industry. She can be reached cia e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clubs Slow to B2B Web Buying
By Kellee “Sparky” Harris
While fitness merchants are beginning to embrace the Web as a tool to find and buy merchandise for their stores, club owners are lagging behind.
Eastside Athletic Club, based in Clackamas, OR, reinforces this point. Club manager James Leverton chooses to order through a local sales rep for apparel and accessory merchandise stocked in their club shop. “We may possibly buy online in the future, but for now we only use the Internet to research new products, particularly new fitness equipment from the manufacturers.”
Online marketplaces such as iCongo.com cater to retailers who either want inline or closeout merchandise from key vendors, but the site claims they have yet to see buyers from health clubs join the ranks. “We currently have more than 25,000 registered buyers and several hundred suppliers, but no health clubs to date,” notes Steven Kramer, chief technical officer. “We also have a relationship with eBay.com, so merchants can tap an array of additional offerings through this channel as well.”
Another site, Nutripeak.com, offers a wide array of supplements via their online store, but admits the health clubs buying from them normally call their toll-free number as opposed to placing the order via the Web.
“They tend to like to hear from our customer service reps as to new products and to know which new products are selling well,” states Randall Giles, co-owner. “It is a better way of exchanging information to help their sales.”
Giles, the original owner, who has revamped the site, product mix and service policies, recently repurchased Nutripeak.com. His store caters to clubs that need to get several different brands of products from one location, who otherwise would have to place several small (and costly) orders with different distributors or manufacturers. Giles also notes his Web site attracts interest from clubs overseas, given one of their employees formerly worked in the international freight industry and understands the needs of export customers.
He claims another issue with clubs is time sensitivity, with many waiting until the last moment to order. “Inventory management is not the focus of most clubs, so they like to know that we can supply them quickly,” cites Giles. “This allows them more margin for error as to what inventory they carry.” Given Nutripeak.com has arranged multiple shipment points to speed delivery, they are set up to reach most clubs within three business days, with several important markets delivered overnight.
Giles points out that there is a lot of room for improvement in the entire order processing area, noting his company has the capability to use electronic data interchange (EDI) with their club customers. Unfortunately, club owners have not shown interest in this technology to date.
“We can automate all that process for them with automatic replenishment, better allowing them to invest their time in running the club, not worrying about inventory and reordering product,” he claims. “But, very few customers actually use this…there is a lot of inefficiency in the system that could be worked out for some significant cost savings.”