Today's health club is a one-stop center for fitness and all its associated amenities. Members expect convenience and ideally, they can have their wants and needs fulfilled as they arise, in the club's pro shop. The club that is willing to expend extra effort — and space — on the pro shop will be rewarded in profitability and with satisfied members. Some clubs have successfully maintained the pro shop as part of the overall scheme of the club rather than as a separate entity. Others have turned their pro shops into profit centers having gone that extra mile with regard to placement, layout, product offering and management of the shop as a business — a successful one — in and of itself.

OPTIMAL PLACEMENT

From the outset, if you want something more than clothes hung on a wall, placement of the pro shop space is a determining factor toward profitability. Rudy Fabiano, of Fabiano Designs, prefers the main street approach when designing a facility — placing the pro shop adjacent to the circulation desk area, between it and perhaps, the water coolers — another high traffic area. He juxtaposes it out in the open, so that one has to go through it to get to the drink coolers.

“The art of merchandising is the art of interaction,” he contends. “The more likely people are to interact with the merchandise, the more likely they are to buy.”

Bruce Carter is qualified to offer two points of view in discussing the profitability of the health club pro shop. He is the owner of Optimal Designs Systems International and the consultant firm, Fitness Business Success, through which he's opened more than 200 clubs. He agrees that the success of the pro shop is a function of design and how it is set up within the club. Carter compares the optimal positioning of the pro shop to the high visibility of a shopping mall, where it's easy to walk by and see product. If the club has a strip shopping center facade, it's critical to draw people in from the outside by having the pro shop up front with visibility to the outside. This invites people who are not members of the club to be able to walk in and out easily and increases numbers substantially. A large club can sustain the pro shop with sales to membership only. But a smaller club needs to cater to outside business.

RELATIVE SIZE

Depending on the size of the club, a good size pro shop is usually between 300 square feet and 500 square feet. Fabiano recommends not dedicating a huge amount of footage to the pro shop, typically less than 1 percent of the total club, unless it's located in a tourist destination spot.

APPEALING LAYOUT

The layout of the pro shop needs to be colorful, exciting and inviting so people will want to go to the space and be involved in it. The foundation upon which to build the chosen effect is a display system. A little extra money might need to be spent here, but to sell product it has to be displayed in a fashion that draws people into the space. Fortunately, many of the suppliers of the whole realm of display items and systems that exist, the shelves, racks and mannequins, conveniently have design consultants on their staff adept at setting up such display areas.

Even working with just 200 or 300 square feet, the consultant can introduce a professional look and design to the pro shop.

Stephen Roma, chief executive of WOW! Workout World in Bricktown, NJ spent considerable time in Manhattan with a consultant trying to find store fixtures that were not commonplace. His clubs are wacky and eclectic and each has a WOW! factor so the club wanted something different — not just another pro shop. They found a manufacturer of high-end modular store fixtures and installed the new system in all of the clubs. Their purpose was to make the area feel like a high-end women's boutique.

It's recommended having a dressing booth in the pro shop, rather than having customers go into the locker room to change, especially if they're not members. And Carter advises including the capacity to lock up at the end of the day in the design layout of the pro shop.

PRODUCT OFFERING

When considering product offering, there are various viewpoints on how much to stock, which depends on market demands. Research is in high order. For example, the need to know what is hot in women's clothing because women use the pro shop as more of a place of retail than just to buy t-shirts. You also want to know what the shop down the street is carrying so you don't duplicate. Then look at the product lines you carry relative to their price point and your type of membership. You would not carry a high-end line if your members were not purchasing that level of product. It will just sit on the racks.

Whatever end of the spectrum, there has to be a unique, attractive, exciting product offering, which fits into the price point of the membership base, something they won't find down the street at a lower price. A health club pro shop cannot purchase on a volume basis like a Target. That's all the more reason to do the research, but many clubs don't want to go to the trouble.

To substantially augment retail sales, Bruce Carter suggests hiring a graphic designer to develop a catchy, eye-appealing logo with the club's name on it. Put the logo on a variety of items such as t-shirts, tank tops, sweatshirts, warm-up suits, bags and hats. It will have more appeal than just the name without any design aspect. The beauty of a logo-designed product is it becomes free advertising when worn.

Another aspect up for dispute is volume. Fabiano recommends “unless the club is in a highly trafficked tourist destination spot to ‘keep the shop lean and mean.’ The idea is to not overstock. Often it's thought that if you put things out, people will buy. But the truth is people are going to go to clothing stores for clothing and to department stores that sell active wear cheaper.

It's good to be attuned to the art of retailing. If no one is buying and merchandise is sitting there for a month, and you don't know what to do with it, you may decide to put it on sale. The product always has to look fresh. By keeping the merchandise down to smaller convenience items, t-shirts, shorts, hats, vitamins, bars, a lot more product will move.”

What works for Tom Hatten, president and CEO of Mountainside Fitness Centers in Arizona, is almost the opposite approach. But then his are reportedly the biggest locally owned health clubs in Arizona.

“The more you put out, the more you will sell. Volume begets buying. Have a large selection of different types of clothes, with different styles, colors and brands,” Hatten says. “Treat it like a sporting goods store, stocking everything from earphones, gloves and rafts, to yoga mats, and gel seats, not just a place to sell a few t-shirts.”

Typical health club pro shops can be profitable if they stock impulse items or those items that supply members' immediate needs. A member may get to the gym having forgotten a lock, or he or she may need a gym bag, a water bottle, hand-grips for a workout, shorts, t-shirt or a cap. Other items to stock would be health bars and drinks.

“So the thing to do,” Fabiano suggests, “is to think about what you're selling, decide if it makes sense to be selling it and if it can be sold in any kind of competitive nature. Ask the question if you should be selling something like Spandex clothing as an expert on that item.” But no matter what your level of expertise, you can never go wrong with health and convenience items.

Aimee Morris, director of retail at Crunch Fitness asserts, “the initial reason people come into a pro shop is because they forgot something, whether shorts, t-shirt, towel or yoga mat. They do not go to the club to go shopping. Crunch also offers items to suit their own brand, fun brand t-shirts so that people that forgot theirs can get a Crunch t-shirt at a lower cost than any others at retail.” In addition, there is the double benefit that once the shirt is worn outside the gym there is brand recognition and that once the person has entered the store for the initial purpose, other items catch the eye.

MANAGEMENT

To hire a manager or not, that is the question. Again, what works for some clubs may not work for others. Club general managers and owners look at the pro shop as one aspect of the entire club operation, whereas designers have a conceptual perspective.

Carter is adamant that the club wanting to turn the pro shop into a true profit center will employ a manager for it; that it can't be something the front desk staff does on the side; that it just won't have the same impact.

“The manager does not have to be full time; the manager will perhaps have another role in the club, but should know the retail business, know what the product lines are, what to buy, and what the price points are,” says Carter. “All that's involved in the retail business from ordering inventory to theft, preventing stock outs, selection of product line, is all beyond the scope of a typical club owner. Besides the need for a manager with expertise in retail, the staff must be trained to deal with the needs of the customers, answer their questions, make recommendations, as is done in a small boutique, not a massive department store where customers are on their own.”

For the 27 Crunch locations around the country, however, having the pro shop incorporated into the overall design of the club is working very well. Morris, attributes the profitability of the Crunch pro shop to the fact that they don't run a separate store with separate payroll. The staff at the front desk handles sales. She explains, “There are usually two people working the front desk so if someone is browsing in retail, there is someone who can go over and offer assistance if they need it.”

“For optimal operations,” Carter offers further, “club pro shops should obtain a good retail software cash drawer system, an inventory control system as does the retail industry, which also has software for accounting and bookkeeping instead of trying to control inventory through their regular club system. Pro shops that do well are set up as a business within a business.”

Whatever you decide is the best placement and operations for your pro shop, you can maximize its profit potential by identifying the most profitable blend of products that are attractively displayed and maintained by someone who is well-versed in retail operations. In other words, run it as professionally as the rest of your club and you'll see big returns.