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Home fitness marketers are finding the best way to reach the couch potato consumer is through a couch potato medium: infomercials. And they're pumping up sales in the process.

Fitness industry sales are down overall, with outdoor recreational equipment sales slipping and health club memberships remaining flat at 20 million, according to National Sporting Goods Association.

Sales of home fitness equipment are flat, too, at about $2 billion. But companies that market their equipment through infomercials have been able to buck that trend, encouraging even more players to try out the 30-minute ad vehicle.

In 1992, infomercial campaigns by NordicTrack and Proform Fitness, a division of Weider Inc., helped increase sales of their cross-country ski simulators and treadmills, respectively. And they helped boost sales in both product categories, industry observers say. Treadmill sales rose 10% to $499 million and cross-country ski simulator sales jumped 19% to $411 million in 1992, according to the association.

Home fitness equipment marketers have a trend on their side. Cocooning baby boomers, bombarded with fitness messages, are spending their dwindling discretionary time at home, trend watchers say.

Home fitness products have become so pervasive in the infomercial arena that they now account for 40% of infomercial sales, says Steve Dworman, publisher of newsletter Infomercial Marketing Report.

"You've got to know where your customer is, and he's at home sitting in front of the television," says Jerry Wilson, president of Soloflex Inc., a home fitness marketer whose 1992 sales were $54 million.

NordicTrack, which sold $267 million in home-fitness equipment in 1992, helped fuel the rush to infomercials when it unveiled its first 30-minute commercial in 1991. The following year, sales of NordicTrack's cross-country ski simulater were $90 million, according to Mr. Dworman.

"The success rate of infomercials [generally] is very low [one in 10 get responses], but from what we can tell, the fitness category has the highest success rate of all," says Tim O'Leary, president of TV Tyee, an infomercial production company that creates infomercials for SLM Action Sports, Proform and NordicTrack.

Initially, the infomercial medium was inexpensive enough to be used simply to drive sales leads. Now, industry players are using it to establish their products amid growing competition from lookalike products, as well as to create brand identity and product demand among both consumers and retailers.

For Proform, infomercials helped its Crosswalker treadmill gross $60 million in direct sales in 1992, Mr. Dworman says. Retailers that previously had declined to carry the product began stocking it, further driving demand, he says.

Crosswalker's retail-driving ability pushed the whole treadmill category into high gear, Mr. Dworman says, prompting treadmill promotions and product developments by Proform competitors.

Diversified Products, with 1992 sales of $200 million, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, plans to introduce a treadmill with an interactive pulse control via an infomercial this year, says Chris Clawson, marketing product manager. Last year, Diversified's infomercial for its Firmflex home gym brought in about $40 million to $50 million in direct sales, Mr. Dworman estimates.

"It confirmed our faith in infomercials," Mr. Clawson says.

Other companies have found that by introducing their products on TV, through infomercials and regular-length TV commercials, and then opening up sales to retailers, they can wrest the all-important pricing decision out of the retailer's hands.

SLM in 1993 aimed at the middle market in a 30-minute "storymercial"-an infomercial with a storyline-featuring its $499 Gravity Edge home gym (high-end home gyms can cost more than $3,000).

It featured actor Lorenzo Lamas as its spokesman in a championship training story with a love interest subplot.

The company watched its Gravity Edge direct sales rise to about $30 million in '93, Mr. Dworman says.

These successes have tempted other retail-driven players to consider direct-response marketing. Precor, a $57 million company that spends its marketing budget on traditional advertising for its specialty store dealers, is considering the medium after watching Proform's retail influence grow.

"We're looking into direct marketing, maybe infomercials," says Ellie Ballew, Precor's marketing and communications manager. "But we're watching [Proform] to see if they make enough to stay on the air."

As infomercials become more saturated and time becomes more expensive and elusive, marketers are watching to see how long the trend will remain lucrative.

The shows have to be moneymakers on both the front end and through retail to be cost effective now, says Nancy Lazkani, VP-media at Williams Television Time, Santa Monica, Calif., who buys time for several home fitness equipment campaigns.

Says Mr. Clawson: "It can cost $250,000 to $500,000 for a rollout [of an infomercial] in test markets. Most of our budget goes to product development and promotion. Infomercials are the gravy.

"At one time retailers would stock anything people would advertise [on home-fitness infomercials]. At that time there were four or five products, and they'd say `why not put them all on the floor?' Now there's 20, and they're picking and choosing."

Marketers are readying for another onslaught of product introductions, this time with equipment that interacts with the user to drive new consumer interest.

The heated competition has fueled industry infighting, with infomercials attacking competing brands and marketers fighting each other in courts. Product lifespan has plummeted from about three years to one.

"You have to be better, quicker and have a more competitive product," says Mr. Clawson, whose company is also looking into opportunities on Home Shopping Channel and QVC. "And if your pricing isn't right, it will never take off."

Meanwhile, new players are jumping on the bandwagon. Retailer General Nutrition Centers is getting into the home exercise equipment market for the first time with a home gym that it will hawk on an infomercial in the first quarter of this year.M

SLM last year ran a 3O-minute "storymercial" for Gravity Edge home gym. "Starring" actor Lorenzo Lamas, the storyline mixed a love interest subplot in with a fitness training story.

Soloflex believes "You've got to know where your customer is, and he's at home sitting in front of the television."

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