4 Essential Tips to Sell More Apparel at Your Gym

A rack of T-shirts with the words "how to get these out of your gym."

Here are the “secrets” to selling apparel—from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.

Matt Albrizio of Forever Fierce made a great Facebook post the other day, and I’ll reproduce some of it here to help gym owners make more cash through retail sales.

I’m also going to hold Matt’s advice up to my own experience as a gym owner of 12 years so you get a ground-level perspective. I have no doubt my experiences will be all-to-familiar to many of you.

A head shot of writer Mike Warkentin and the column name "Pressing It Out."

Space-Age Fabrics

Matt says: “You don’t need to offer performance fabrics to sell apparel. … (Suppliers) still promoting this are simply trying to offload a bunch of bad inventory they purchased and make it your problem. People have enough of these items already.”

My experience: This is solid advice. Thankfully, we never considered performance fabrics. It just seemed like a bad idea to me. All I really wanted to do was sell a T-shirt with my logo on it, not wick sweat and try to compete with lululemon. Besides, I’ve coached too many stinky people in performance apparel to want that smell burned into something with my logo on it.

Stocking Inventory

Matt says: “Preorder all apparel unless you have a lot of visitors. Leave the preorder open for 1 week and order a LITTLE extra (6-12 pieces). Better to be sold out of apparel than overstocked.”

My experience: Had I read this 12 years ago, I would have made thousands on retail. As it stands, all our apparel profit was always wiped out by unsold inventory. This happened every single time without exception. I still have boxes of way-too-small T-shirts only toddlers could wear comfortably. When you start weighing margins against the cost of unsold inventory at a small business, you quickly realize that 10 shirts collecting dust on the shelf wipe out the profit from the 30 you sold.

Bonus advice from Matt: “The reason your preorder didn’t work is because you are winging it and you lack a ‘culture of apparel.’ … When you don’t have a plan/process, you get humbled petty quickly. Adopt a system: Experiment. Fine tune it. Implement it. Repeat until you find success.”

Sporadic Product Releases

Matt says: “Offer apparel 4-6 times per year. It will keep the designs fresh and unique. This will establish a ‘culture of apparel’ in your gym. This means that apparel plays a role in your gym and is ‘part of the deal here.’ … (If you) offer apparel 1-2 times a year, you’ll make a ton of stuff available for purchase because ‘it is what everyone asked for.’ It is so much stuff that no one can possibly order everything at once, and they get decision paralysis. … You have more products in the store than sales made, and you’ve decided apparel is a waste of time.”

My experience: Randomly deciding to get some T-shirts every so often didn’t work for us at all. And we definitely tried to offer too much variety instead of just “the fall sweatshirt.” Because we ordered stuff so infrequently, we never learned any lessons or built any systems. We just found new ways to make the same mistakes and lose money. Had we offered simple apparel orders four times a year every year with a streamlined process, we would have generated revenue every quarter and had people expecting the next item—perhaps even as a Christmas gift or birthday present to someone else. People would have been wearing our logo everywhere on cool new gear, not painting fences in faded, 5-year-old gym T-shirts.

Your Buddy With the Part-Time T-Shirt Biz

Matt’s advice: “Work with a vendor who has a big-picture strategy and sales experience in this niche. Yes, the local guy is very nice, and he is in the same area as you. Yes, a member’s brother’s cousin’s sister’s niece prints shirts, and I’m sure they can cut you a great deal. But at the end of the day, just work with someone who knows what they’re doing in this niche and serve you best.”

My experience: This is truth. While I like supporting other local small businesses, there is no substitute for competence. I’ve gone with the buddy-who-prints-shirts option. There were so many errors that entire size runs had to be reprinted. And the order was late. When I told the connection who had recommended the vendor that the experience was disastrous, he said, “Yeah, it’s always kinda like that with him.” This story is not uncommon. Find a great vendor and use its resources—advice on styles and designs, free graphic services, marketing materials, sales tips, etc. If you don’t go with a pro, you’re rolling the dice.

Real Retail Stats

Unless you’re in a destination city like Las Vegas and your drop-ins must exit through the gift shop, you’re not going to sell thousands of retail items. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make money through retail.

Done right, a retail program can boost your profit. And every dollar of profit counts in a small business.

I asked gym owners in our private Facebook group for any numbers they could share. Here are some stats from ground level:

  • One reported that retail provided 6.09 percent of gross annual revenue.
  • Another uses a vending machine to sell $4,400 of assorted stuff a year, with a profit margin of 30-40 percent, depending on the exact item breakdown.
  • The owner with the vending machine also generates $1,200-$2,000 in gross apparel sales every three to four months, with a profit margin of about 30 percent. If you use an average of $1,600 per campaign and assume four campaigns, that’s about $2,000 in profit.
  • Another owner said retail contributes 1.4 percent to total profit.
  • One other owner—not in Las Vegas or Hawaii—said he makes $34,000 in retail sales a year, which is 9 percent of total gross revenue. His top tips: Be consistent (four to five campaigns per year), use pre-orders and work with great vendors.

These are not insignificant numbers. Thirty grand is a good month of total revenue in many gyms!

And remember this: A well-run apparel program doesn’t have to eat up much time. You just regularly present stuff to an audience that’s eager for it. You could even pay a staff member an admin rate to handle everything.

At the very least, if you stop winging it you can avoid losing money while draping your logo on the fit, smiling people who are your very best advertising. A breakeven proposition that comes with tons of free advertising is still a pretty good play.

But aim higher: Take Matt’s advice and create a strong apparel program that contributes to your profit four to six times a year.


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.