A little supplemental reading for boosting your supplement IQ (and sales!)

“One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don't do anything at all.”

Jefferson Airplane's swan song “White Rabbit,” while not specifically written about legal dietary supplements, offers clubs a musical parable about some of the claims many supplement manufacturers make on behalf of their products.

Some of these claims are true, and there's research to back them up. Other, not-so-reputable companies put false claims on the market to make a fast buck, and leave the consumer stranded with nothing more to show for himself than a package of very expensive placebos. Worse yet, some of these supplements can contain dangerous ingredients.

Consider that in 1999, Crunch was named in a lawsuit filed by the family of a member whose death reportedly resulted from a supplement that one of the club's personal trainers had allegedly instructed her to take. Even though Crunch has a policy against selling or endorsing supplements, the family's lawsuit contends that the club's trainer recommended a supplement, sold at a Vitamin Shoppe store, containing ephedrine, which has links to more than 40 deaths.

Issues like these don't seem to be hurting supplement sales much, however. According to recent reports, more than 60 percent of adult Americans consume nutritional supplements — vitamins, minerals and herbals — with $27.2 billion worth of the products sold in 1998 alone.

Since dietary supplements are not federally regulated or tested, how can owners decide between a reputable product and a dangerous one? And once they decide what products they want to sell, how do they promote their offerings to their members so that they can compete with the likes of larger health supplement stores (such as GNC)?

  • Do background checks on all your distributor leads. Many supplement distributors will contact you themselves. Make sure you research their companies before working with them.

    “It's a trickle effect. They call you. It's up to you to weed out any [questionable companies],” explains Steve Hess, manager of retail pharmacies at Highland Park Hospital, including the Herbal Shoppe, which opened in March. The shop is located within the Hospital's Health and Fitness Center, and offers a variety of health and nutritional supplements.

  • Check out the product yourself. Once you've obtained a list of companies you may want to work with, narrow the list down further by sending them a survey inquiring about their supplements' ingredients, as well as product testing and research guidelines.

    “Check out the companies that you're buying from. That's really important,” Hess advises.

  • Research all the ingredients contained in the supplements. Go on the Internet, read medical journals and check out Consumer Reports' listings. “I would definitely have someone in the medical industry that would approve what you've done,” recommends Ken Kachtik, general manager at Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans. Just because a product is natural doesn't mean that it is safe.

    Because of its association with Ochner Hospital, Elmwood only sells items that the hospital board approves. This means no ephedrine, or other dubious ingredients, can be purchased at the store.

    “We don't sell anything that's thermogenic,” Molly Kimball, the club's registered dietitian and nutritionist, explains.

  • Before selling any supplement at your own facility, make sure to ask members what medicines and supplements they're currently taking. And always recommend they talk to their doctor before taking any supplement.

    In the Crunch case, the club member was taking prescription medication for hypertension. The combination of ephedrine and this drug, the suit claims, caused her to have a fatal stroke. While this is an extreme example, supplements can cause unwanted side effects. (St. John's Wort, for instance, is known to interfere with birth-control efficacy.)

  • Hire and train appropriate sales staff. Hess became certified in phidomedicinals (vitamins) and herbals before opening the Herbal Shoppe's doors. In addition, he had an assigned pharmacist resident to assist him.

    Most clubs probably aren't in a position to add a pharmacist to the payroll, but many opt to utilize registered dietitians, nutritionists or some other member of the medical profession to provide backup for any supplement sales. It's a safety precaution that, while not enforced by law, is encouraged.

    “It's good to have a nutritionist on hand, someone who's educated and knows the vitamins backwards and forwards,” advises Derek Barton, Gold's Gym's vice president of public relations and communications. The club chain sells and promotes supplements through its individual clubs, as well as via an e-store.

    “It's one thing to be carrying vitamins and another thing knowing what they can do for you,” Barton adds. And that's exactly what a professional will know.

  • For liability issues, you may want to have members sign waiver forms when purchasing supplements. Your club's members need to be aware they are responsible for any purchases they make at your club.

  • Promote your supplements via newsletters, bulletin boards, Web sites, posters, signs and word of mouth. Offer free samples to your personal trainers and other fitness team members. They're the ones who will be working with your members the most, and can help spread the word about your products.

  • If you have the cash, start up an e-store to sell your supplements, and other pro-shop items. Companies like Fitness Venture Group can set up, manage, and promote the site for you, leaving you free to take care of business at your own club. “Most gym owners are not retailers and they don't claim or want to be,” explains Peter Moore, CFO and vice president of business development for Fitness Venture Group, the company responsible for Gold's Gym's Web site and e-store.

  • Make sure members can visually see where you're selling the supplements. Use a location the member must walk through on her way to the workout floor or before leaving the club.

  • Ask members and staff what supplements they use and recommend. If you deem these supplements safe, carry them in the club. If a member already uses the product, it's a sure-fire bet that she'll buy it from you if you sell it.

  • If you have a registered dietitian on staff, ask her to provide a seminar on supplements. Discuss their possible benefits and side effects. Invite members to ask questions.