Making the most from a pro shop

Life would be so much easier if my gym had a pro shop. Now I might not buy a new sports bra every time I forgot mine, but having that option-and at least being able to purchase a lock or shampoo-would sure be swell. And now that I think of it, because I so often spend my lunch hour at the gym, it would be nice if I could occasionally shop there for workout wear and gear.

It is for these reasons and others that clubs should consider opening a pro shop. "If your members are going to spend their money, it may as well be with you," says Wayne Meier Jr., president of Midwest Athletic Club (M.A.C.), in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "You may as well have a store at your facility where you can increase your revenue."

So what does it take? Even a small club can make a successful go at retail without a lot of hassle.

* Have a dedicated space that can serve as your shop and where you can display and store product. It doesn't have to be large. Meier suggests a room at least 10x10 to 12x12 square feet. If you don't have a space earmarked for product, "it doesn't give a good representation of what you're trying to offer," says Meier. "You've got to at least put some effort into it."

* Promote your product. There's no need to go all out, however. The M.A.C. places racks (they're bolted to the wall) outside its shop that wrap around a wall near the front desk so that members entering and leaving the club can see them. New products are displayed on a concrete glass-topped pillar near the front desk. They are also ballyhooed in the club's quarterly newsletter.

* Use existing employees to take orders and inventory your product. Rather than hire someone for $25,000 a year to run the store, pay someone already on staff a monthly bonus-such as $300-to incorporate pro shop responsibilities into his or her duties. Likely candidates? Front desk staff. "We take people who have an interest in helping out-such as the front desk staff," says Meier. "They can help keep the shop stocked, and rearrange and sell clothing and products. It gives them something to do on a slow day." They can also can note when someone enters the shop and keep a watchful eye on your inventory so that items don't start disappearing.

* Find out what your members want. It's fine to do a formal survey, but it's not essential. Simply keep a request form at your front desk so members can jot down what they'd like to see you stock. Instructors can also encourage members to note what they'd like the shop to carry. And ask front desk staff what types of requests they get from members.

Even more basic: "Ask yourself: 'If I were a member, what would I need?' " suggests Meier. Among the top sellers at the M.A.C.: shoelaces, padlocks and batteries. "You won't believe the batteries we go through," says Meier. "It's unbelievable."

And don't overlook amenities, such as shampoo, or clothing embroidered with your club logo. But don't feel you have to stock every brand of every product. "Find out what the member is buying and break it down into four or five different brands and stick with them," says Meier.

* Price fairly, but wisely. No matter what size club you are, you aren't going to be able to compete with a large chain. "A member doesn't understand that a chain can buy in large quantity," says Meier. "He just thinks you're making money."

And in a way, you can't blame the member. For example, products at the M.A.C. are marked up 75 percent to 125 percent, depending upon the item. "We look at every product and determine what the consumer would pay for it," explains Meier. "The markup isn't straight across the board."

So why would a member buy something from you when he can get it for $5 less down the street? Convenience. If a member's Walkman batteries go dead or she discovers that she forgot her sports bra, she may decide that forking over the extra cash is worth it.

* Consider implementing a co-op program. For $5 a month, M.A.C. members can join a co-op that entitles them to a 40 percent discount in the pro shop. "The discount takes us to what the franchises are selling the product for-or even less," says Meier. "But where we make up for it is the $5."

Now for a member who buys the occasional T-shirt or protein bar, the co-op membership may well end up costing him more. "But the co-op program encourages members to buy things in the shop," says Meier. And he finds that co-op members "pretty much buy things on a regular basis."

* Establish member charge accounts in lieu of cash. It's easier on your staff. Because M.A.C. members pay their dues via electronic funds transfer (EFT), members' purchases are debited to their credit cards or checking accounts at the same time monthly dues are. (When a staff member rings up a member's purchase, his membership or co-op number is entered into the computer.) "We don't have to chase people down," says Meier.

* Is it worth it? The M.A.C. turns in a $50,000 to $60,000 profit at each of its two facilities. "We also include co-op membership in the picture," he says. "If I did not have the co-op program, I would not be selling this."


Pro Shop Musts

What should you stock in your pro shop? Here's a look at what sells well at the M.A.C.:

* Batteries
* Protein powders and drinks
* Nutrition bars
* Water
* Amenities, such as shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors and combs
* Lifting belts
* Shoelaces
* Yoga mats
* Hand wraps, which go on under leather kickboxing gloves
* Socks
* Walkmans
* Padlocks
* Sports bras
* T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps - you name it - bearing your club logo