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What to Look for in a Treadmill or Elliptical This Year

Fitness equipment- as a business- continues to evolve and more and more of the transactions are occurring online.  Plenty of purchases still occur in physical stores but when you consider that only a less than a decade ago there were over 1,100 fitness specialty store locations and today we estimate that the number is now under 300, it is easy to see that the dynamics of where treadmills and ellipticals are bought has changed rapidly. Many more units of fitness equipment are bought on the web and in mass-market stores. It used to be when you went in a Sports Authority, their expensive machine was $799 but today we regularly see sporting goods stores with models well over $2,000.

As far as how the market divides, we have seen a shift in dollars spent as well.  It mirrors much of what has been reported in the broader economy.  The very high end of the market has done well and actually expanded.  On the more economical side, more and more purchases that used to be at the $2,500 level have moved in the $1,000 to $1,500 range.  Much of the business that used to be at the $1,500 price point has moved lower too.  Places like, Sears, and Dick’s Sporting Goods commonly today sell machines that are in the $2,000 price point or higher and just a few years ago, it was uncommon for these retailers to sell anything above $1,000 and most of their sales were at $799 or below.

What does this mean for you?  First, you will find better quality in the mass market.  Joggers on treadmills and moderate users of ellipticals are now able to get on a machine as low as $1,000 without significant problems.  The one caveat is that most treadmills in this price range have ¾” decks and those can break with a runner since they put a pounding on a deck.  That’s why we have developed a deck reinforcement kit so if you are a runner and get a machine with a ¾” deck, we would recommend our reinforcement kit or simply buy a machine with a 1” deck.  The ellipticals in this range typically use bushings instead of bearings on the major load points so you will have less life engineered into the machine but the elliptical will cost significantly less and you can easily stay with the latest gadget trend with a new machine in 5 years.

At the $1,500 price point, you can get a durable machine.  More and more people report to us that they are 5k and 10k training on a $1,500 machine!  Icon has put great pressure on the mass market and has effectively grabbed a huge share of the market under $2,000 and now they are moving into higher price points.  The company that once dominated the under $1,000 price range now makes home treadmills that cost as much as $4,000 or more.

With all of the turbulence, some matters that were not terribly important in the past are incredibly important today.  In the past, manufacturers and distributors had leeway in operations since there were only a few companies and missteps could be easily corrected next year.  Competition is now so cutthroat, in all price ranges, that a small misstep could mean your company won’t be around next year to service your treadmill or elliptical.  Never fear!  We are here to help you make sense of this mess.

The point is that you should consider the channel that you are buying from and the company that makes your treadmill as much as you should consider the model.  In our overviews of companies, we give our opinions and thoughts about the stability of the company as well as how we expect them to do over the long run.  Check the local BBB (Better Business Bureau) to see how the retailer takes care of their customers.  You may also want to check the factories with the national BBB. Since product support is very important with fitness equipment, pay careful attention to our outlook for the brands and consider our comments in regard to their long-term prospects.

Many people email us each year asking about specific components, most notably motors and rollers in relation to treadmills or should I buy a front-drive or rear-drive elliptical.  Component buying is almost always a trap that you don’t want to fall into and these are two areas of a treadmill or elliptical that has been muddied over the last 10 to 20 years.  First, the motor situation is almost laughable.  Since there is no accepted standard for rating treadmill motors, it is easy for a company to put virtually any rating they want on a treadmill motor.  With some fear and trembling, we launched a new motor standard five years ago.  At first, we had some big players wanting to help out but this fell apart when some factories realized we were going to tell the truth so we have had to go it alone.  When we rate the motor, we attempt to rate it based on the size of the windings in the armature in relation to the permanent magnets.  It is the only good way to determine the actual horsepower of a treadmill motor and that is why our power ratings may vary significantly from a manufacturer’s stated ratings.  In other words, don’t buy a treadmill based upon what the factory claims in HP rating.

Another related point is treadmill roller size.  Factories claim a bigger roller is a better roller.  In theory, the larger the roller, the slower it will turn causing less wear on the bearings and less stress on the walking belt since the belt can operate at a lower tension.  The truth is that many larger rollers have just as many problems as smaller rollers (and some larger rollers have more problems than smaller rollers) because companies skimp on the quality of the parts used to make the rollers, so overall quality is much more important than size of the roller so pay attention in the reviews to the quality ratings. This is just an example of how factories can muddy the waters.

In summation, the market has improved again this year; especially for the consumer because you can get more quality for your money.  Some of the mass-market brands still have a way to go in regards to their customer service but the quality of their products has improved so much that in most cases poor service is a moot point.  Treadmill Doctor suggests selecting carefully and make sure you pick one from a company that has good prospects to be around for a long time so you can get the parts you need in 10 years.  If you are buying from a specialty retailer in order to receive a higher level of service, double-check the retailer's service level with an organization like the BBB to make sure they take care of customers because if you are buying a high priced treadmill or elliptical, you deserve the best service