HEALTH CLUBS PUMP UP PRO SHOPS

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — In what they hope will be yet another timesaver for their athletic-minded, calorie-counting members, health club chains are giving their pro shops and private label lines a major overhaul.
With the typical trip to the gym often involving pit stops at the ATM, a coffee shop and the grocery store, clubs are introducing more stylish activewear to suit up gym-goers. They’ve waved goodbye to drab, baggy sweats, replacing them with colorful, moisture-wicking clothes.
“For some, it’s a matter of servicing people who forget a T-shirt. For us, we’re a brand,” said Doug Levine, founder and president of Crunch Fitness International, a 19-unit chain with stores in the U.S. and Tokyo.
Taking the style challenge seriously, Crunch tapped Manrico Holding SpA, a contractor for Prada and other high-end designers, to produce its new activewear.
That move clipped the heels of another major deal last month, when Equinox and its EnergyWear pro shops and private label were sold for upward of $100 million to investment firms Newcastle Partners and J.W. Childs Associates, who have a game plan to take the chain national.
This week, New York Health & Racquet Club unveiled its revamped activewear collection, designed by former runway model Debbie Dickinson. Not to be outdone, Gold’s Gym is scouting for new licensing deals and Bally Total Fitness is setting up pro shops in its 385 clubs.
Marc Gobe, whose book “Emotional Branding” was published this month by Allworth Press, said health clubs are creating “the real retail model of the future.” Their strategies exemplify marketing’s newest trend, the holistic approach, he said. Health clubs start with physical training, move on to juice bars or restaurants and then stylish apparel. “People in this fast-paced world with its unexpected future — stock market crashes and Internet company layoffs — want a place where they can connect with other people, do something good for their bodies and take away something that makes them feel good about that,” Gobe said. “It’s also clothing that reflects who you are and what you do.”
Through its unlikely joint venture deal with Manrico and Progetti International, Crunch, a club that is known for such offbeat draws as circus training classes and transvestite fitness instructors, unveils its activewear and accessories this fall. Cashmere blend Crunch activewear items will be part of the offering — quite an upgrade for a company widely recognized for unstylish oversized mesh shorts imprinted with its name on the back.
The new line, which will be priced 20 percent higher than standard branded activewear, will be offered at Crunch’s 19 pro shops, as well as at Lucy.com and 35 select specialty stores worldwide, Levine said. He projected wholesale volume for the new Crunch collection to be $5 million.
Manrico’s affiliation with Prada, Louis Vuitton, Jil Sander and other top-shelf European designers earned points with Levine, who’s aim is to bolster Crunch’s brand awareness internationally. “Today, it’s very hard to break into the U.S. market,” Levine said. “If it’s fashionable in Europe, it’s easier to gain worldwide distribution.”
On another front, through a partnership with Lucy.com, Crunch opened a Lucy@crunch store at its Upper East Side health club. Additional sites are being considered, Levine said.
Franny Errico, national buyer for Equinox Energywear, an 11-unit club, is focusing on items like lightweight corduroy pants, rayon and Lycra spandex tops, tanks with sewn-in bras and camisole tops with adjustable straps to be competitive. “We don’t want to compete with anyone else,” she said. “We like things that make us different and stand out a little.”
That level of variety helps boost store traffic at EnergyWear stores where nonmembers account for half of the customers. This year, four new clubs with stores will open in major metropolitan cities, as well as at another location in Greenwich Village.
With its new ownership, Equinox EnergyWear, an eight-year-old operation, plans to focus more on product development to continue to bolster item-driven sales with its EnergyWear label. But Equinox isn’t going overboard with logo placement. Most items have small tabs a la Levi’s or Prada imprinted with Equinox Surf, Equinox Authentic and other variations, or no logo at all.
“We’re not about logos. That might work for someone else, but it doesn’t work for us,” Errico said. “That won’t be the main focus — it’s not different enough. It’s been out there for 10 years now.”
What does make a difference with shoppers is providing good customer service, such as informing them about the benefits of technical fabrics and placing special orders — even for white tights — if necessary. Customers frequently complain about the lack of knowledgeable salespeople at local sporting goods and specialty stores, Errico said. “Once they’re hooked they tell two friends and the friends tell two friends+,” she said.
To stay on top of trends, Errico keeps track of what women wear during her Central Park runs and Equinox workouts. She also scouts for new lines at trade shows such as Intermezzo.
“We don’t go too glitzy. We’re not in California or Florida,” she said. “I know HotPants are coming back, but who has the body to wear them? A few instructors, maybe.”
Having seen leather pants, Gucci sunglasses, evening gowns and pumps offered at other pro shops, Errico reacted: “Pumps? What are you going to do take a class in them? If something doesn’t relate to your business, why get into it?”
With plans to open eight clubs each month this year, Gold’s Gym, a 560-unit chain in 36 countries, is pursuing activewear, bags and home fitness equipment licensing deals, according to Edward Powderly, senior vice president of product licensing. The club’s bodywear license generates about $5 million in annual sales.
“Our members don’t have a lot of time to shop for their fitness needs,” he said. “We want to position ourselves as a lifestyle brand. That’s what fitness is all about.”
Gold’s attributes its successful branding to unofficial celebrity endorsements. When high-profile personalities like Michelle Pfeiffer, Janet Jackson and Kobe Bryant wear Gold’s Gym apparel or tell David Letterman they toned up at Gold’s in Venice, Calif., that resonates with consumers, said Derek Barton, vice president of public relations.
In business for 35 years, Gold’s has long had ties to the silver screen. Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced millions to the Venice gym in the 1977 film “Pumping Iron.” Actors, musicians and pro athletes regularly visit the facility to try to whip themselves into shape for movies, concerts or upcoming seasons.
Despite its celebrity allegiance, Gold’s does not use that aspect in its advertising, preferring to appeal to the general public. Jack, a Los Angeles-based ad agency, created a recent apparel spot that read, “Our sportswear comes in small, medium, large and you’ve got to be kidding.”
For the second straight year, Gold’s is running a promotion awarding $500,000 to eight members who revolutionize their bodies.
Bally’s Fitness strategy involves opening pro shops in all 385 clubs, unveiling its upgraded private label, suiting up instructors in Bally’s activewear, inking a licensing deal, airing radio promotions in clubs and offering member discounts for branded activewear.
The chain has set up 300 pro shops, compared to 65 shops 18 months ago, said Collette Purciarele, who joined the company at that time as director of retail merchandising. Stores range from 300 to 500 square feet and have street-level access when possible. “Workout wear has gone from baggy sweatsuits to something to wear to the grocery store or into the clubs at night,” Purciarele said.
With retail prices ranging from $10.95 for shorts to $35.95 for a jacket, Bally’s updated private label activewear will be rolled out by the end of next month. Private label accounts for 25 percent of the women’s apparel, with branded goods such as Avia, Everlast and Perfeto comprising the rest.
To meet members’ requests for technical fabrics and versatile items, Bally’s line has Tactel-blended activewear including yoga pants, wrap skirts and jackets.
“The customer has gotten more savvy and understands the need for moisture management,” Purciarele said. “The customer also always knows it’s Bally’s. They don’t know who made it for Bally’s.”
Given that, Bally’s is working on a “permanent” licensing deal, instead of continuing to use a variety of manufacturers, she said.
Bally members who wear headsets to tune into the chain’s music network periodically hear commercials about pro-shop offers. Next year, members taking classes such as spinning and tae kwan do will get to check out the latest Bally’s looks on the chain’s 7,000 fitness instructors.
Before relaunching NYHRC’s activewear, Dickinson got a lot of input from two of her friends, designer Nicole Miller and her partner Bud Konheim, chief executive officer of the firm bearing Miller’s name.
Dickinson aimed to design a line of “cutting-edge, affordable clothing made of high tech fabrics.” Once an elite high school gymnast and a catwalker for European and American designers, she said she appreciates comfortable, durable looks. “I wanted to make more revolutionary wear for working out instead of throwing on the same T-shirt with shorts,” Dickinson said.
NYHRC’s line consists of a waist-length bra, a padded bra, hooded warm-up jacket, capri pants with mesh side panels and “bell” pants with a roll-down waistband.
Retail prices range from $23 to $40. The company’s initial test of 1,500 units is expected to sell out within three weeks, she said. This week, the line is being shown to department and specialty stores. Consumers will be able to shop online at NYHRC’s Web site, hrcbest.com, by the end of the month.
Erin Chalene, Bill Cosby’s daughter, appears in promotional material for the line’s launch. Dickinson’s sister, Janice, another former runway model who is now a photographer, is getting models to try out the NYHRC line.

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