Survival of the fittest
Anyone who works out at a fitness club in Japan is probably using state-of-the art equipment from American company Life Fitness Japan. A subsidiary of Brunswick Co, Life Fitness has had a presence in the Japanese market since 1984 when its fitness machines were imported by Sony Enterprise. The company became a K.K. in 1999.
Heading up the Japan operations is Paul Shippee. Originally from Maine, Shippee worked in Japan in the insurance business before joining Life Fitness as general manager for Japan in 2003.
Shippee speaks enthusiastically about the latest innovations in cardio equipment and trends in Japan. Last month, Life Fitness Japan launched the Discover SE and Discover SI consoles that integrate with the newest Life Fitness cloud-based technology, LFconnect. This new cardio line, in conjunction with the LFconnect website, allows end users to personalize their workout experience and helps fitness facilities customize the content available on the equipment with asset management tools.
Discover, the third generation of Life Fitness’ touch-screen technology, is the most user-friendly and intuitive yet. The surface capacitive touch screen with Swipe Technology gives exercisers easy access to their personal iPhone, iPod or Android smartphone content, Lifescape interactive courses, open-Internet browsing, and On-Demand videos.
Japan Today catches up with Shippee to hear more.
What is Life Fitness’ history in Japan?
Life Fitness has been in Japan since 1984. We used a distributor back then, Sony Enterprise. They were looking for gaps in their product line and they chose fitness equipment. That was when fitness was taking off in the 1980s, you know with Olivia Newton-John singing “Let’s Get Physical.”
The market in Japan has always been slow to grow. Our typical buying cycle is 5-7 years because you can run one of our treadmills for five years straight, 40,000 kms and not have to change a thing on it. We had a bit of a growth spurt in the mid-2000s. This year has been a challenging year, but we are doing OK and we are diversifying along with the market.
How did the disaster last year affect business?
Some of our biggest customers, such as Konami Sports and Central Sports, had facilities in the affected regions that were damaged and in lieu of the money they were reserving for possible expansion, they had to fix up those clubs first. So that did affect us.
Who are your main customers?
Most of the major commercial fitness clubs, the majority of 5-star hotels, the Tokyo American Club and we are big on U.S. bases in Japan. Universities are very big for us, too. Besides Tokyo, we have offices in Osaka and Kyushu. We can cover the country because the head offices of fitness clubs, which are located in Tokyo, will work with us when they expand in other cities.
Do you sell equipment for home use in Japan?
Some but not as much as in other countries. There are voltage, service and pricing issues, as well as the size of homes to consider.
What is your best-selling machine?
Definitely treadmills are our best seller. For example, if you go to JEXER Sports Club at Ueno Station, they have about 45 running machines. That is huge. Even in the biggest club in America, there might be 30-40, so we are seeing increasing popularity in Japan.
What about languages?
Our commercial equipment comes in 16 languages. Some of our clients, which have English, Korean and Chinese-speaking communities, love our treadmills.
Also, some customers want an easy-to-read LCD to let them know how fast they are going, for how long, in kanji, not kana. All the other makers use kana or an English alphabet. We are the first and only one to use kanji in the LCD. We have done it for Russia, Japan and the Arab countries.
What other trends are we seeing?
We’ve gone way beyond the days when you would just walk up to a machine and hit QuickStart – even though many still do it. The trend now is to be able to use television, the Internet, your iPhone, Android phone—everything is open.
We just launched our new console. It’s high-definition, Internet-connected. It works for iPhone and Android, and we are the only maker that uses both. It’s very exciting. The new consoles are also API (application programming interface) open to third-party app developers. Establishing a link between an exerciser’s digital life and the workout experience, LFopen provides developers access to future Life Fitness equipment software technology and the ability to customize apps leveraging workout presets, workout results, real time monitoring and more.
We have virtual reality landscapes. For example, you can get on the treadmill and jog in the German Black Forest or along the beach in New Zealand plus many more. And it is interactive, so the faster you go, the faster the frame rate is on the image.
How is the new tech being received in Japan?
Japanese are very tech-savvy. IT is entering everyone’s lives. Once they find out that they can go to the gym and use Facebook or Twitter, watch movies and be entertained while they are working out, they love it.
How popular are fitness clubs in Japan?
Market research shows that only about 3% of the population is a member of a fitness club, as compared to New Zealand which has membership rates of 14-16%, America and Australia at 10-12%, and the UK at 12%. We are seeing more 24-hour clubs open, more women-only clubs, personal trainers, among other trends.
How do you market the company?
We are at the health and fitness trade show in Japan in June every year. We also travel with customers to America for major trade shows there. We do some advertising in Japanese print media, but we believe the best way to market are products is through direct customer interaction., face-to-face.
Do you visit your clients much?
Half a day every day I am out visiting clients. The thing that gives me the most satisfaction is when we open a new club, seeing the smile on customers who have been waiting for weeks for the club to open.
How often do you work out?
I try to do something every day, whether it is on the exercise bike or running. I apply every year to run in the Tokyo Marathon and I have done 7 Ironmans in Australia, New Zealand, Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan and America. I’m pleased to say that I finished them all.