OVERLAND PARK, KS — Sports nutrition and weight loss (SNWL) products are a largely untapped source of revenue in the health club market.

The SNWL business grew more than 5 percent in 2008 to a $20.8 billion industry, though sales in the health club and practitioner channel accounted for only $480 million of that amount, according to research by the Nutrition Business Journal. The SNWL category includes sports and weight-loss supplements, nutrition bars, sports and energy drinks and low-carb foods. Although $1 billion in new sales was added to the SNWL category in 2008, its overall growth rate slowed from 7.8 percent in 2007 and 9.7 percent in 2006.

Many health club SNWL sales focus on easy-to-sell items, says Michele Bell Figueroa, president of mPower Solutions LLC, Palo Alto, CA, an integrated sales consulting firm that serves the fitness industry.

“Most health club sales are energy drinks and nutrition bars. A lot of clubs understand nothing about selling supplements,” she says. “There is really an untapped revenue source if it's done by someone who understands individual supplementation. Our food supply is not as good as it used to be, so everyone could use some supplementation, in my opinion.”

The convenience factor is important for people on the go after they work out, she notes.

“The juices and fortified waters and bars just fly off the shelves because people are thirsty and hungry at the gym,” says Figueroa. “Gold's puts them right at the front desk so members walk in, grab a bar and check in. Powders are probably second-most popular, and supplements and vitamins would be last.”

Mike Valentino, owner of 12 Gold's Gyms in the Carolinas, says selling sports supplements and nutrition products are both a natural fit and a good revenue generator for his clubs.

“They have been an excellent source of revenue,” Valentino says of his SNWL line. “Most gyms are already carrying a front desk staff, and it's really a minimal effort to carry these additional products to have as a huge convenience for your members.”

Valentino's clubs sell protein powders, sport drinks, nutrition bars and snacks, ready-to-drink meal replacements and meal replacement powders, as well as sports supplements, such as creatine, glutamine, amino acids and vitamins.

To educate members about the products, Valentino says his clubs keep manufacturers' literature easily accessible to members, and employees share information about their personal use of the products. Members often have already read about many of the products they sell in health magazines or online.

Because information about these products is so readily available online, club staff must be knowledgeable about SNWL products, Figueroa says.

“People know a lot more about supplements, so we have to be more savvy,” she says. “If a client plops down a bottle of vitamins on your desk, we have to have a basic understanding of how to answer their questions, or pass them along to someone who does know. ”

Unfortunately, many clubs don't have a wellness contact or dietician on staff, she says. But having staff qualified to answer supplement questions is important, says Jasmine Jafferali, owner of JJ Wellness Consulting, Chicago. Knowledgeable staff can not only help pick high-quality products, but they also can make solid recommendations to members.

“When you have an upscale health club, you need to make sure you give good products to your clients and that you have the right people doing it,” Jafferali says. “The interesting thing is a lot of supplements are used to prevent diseases, but they can actually contribute to them. You have to know what you're buying and know when to refer to someone to get proper supplements.”

Some health club owners hire dieticians to help with supplement sales, and others partner with sole practitioners or local schools that have nutrition or dietician programs to offer advice for members, Jafferali says.

Although it's important to be smart about supplement sales, offering SNWL products at a fitness facility can not only increase revenue, it also can boost retention, Figueroa says.

“If you really want members to stay, you have to offer a range of programs, like educational workshops, nutrition and yoga,” she says. “If you don't have a variety, boredom sets in, and people stop coming. If you just have personal training and group exercise, you could do more at your club.”