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Reebok embraces personal fitness trend

Sales associate Andre Wynter and Angelica Ochoa perused a schedule of classes in Braintree.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Sales associate Andre Wynter and Angelica Ochoa perused a schedule of classes in Braintree.

Want to take a free Zumba class or try a CrossFit workout with a certified coach? Head to the South Shore Plaza, where an unconventional new Reebok store blends shopping and fitness.

Wheeled fixtures on the store’s rubber floor can be pushed aside to make room for yoga, push-ups, or agility training. Climbing ropes hang from the rafters, and plywood boxes mounted to walls more closely resemble cubbies at a gym than shoe displays.

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The Braintree store is among the first of 10 Reebok “FitHubs” slated to open on the East Coast over the next six months. The new store concept — which mixes retail with regularly scheduled exercise classes — is the latest step in Reebok’s effort to return to its personal fitness roots after a less successful foray into team sports shoes and apparel.

Reebok hopes the new stores will help recapture the magic its aerobics gear inspired in the 1980s, when the brand rode a fitness craze to the top of the US shoe retail market and became a household name.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

A grand opening for Reebok’s South Shore Plaza store on Saturday will feature a CrossFit competition.

“We might have lost our true North, that lighthouse identity of the brand that started us,” said Matt O’Toole, chief marketing officer at Reebok. “The stores are the perfect place to sharpen the focus of our brand and develop a deeper relationship with the consumer, as opposed to being this kind of broad sporting goods company.”

Reebok and its new FitHub stores hope to attract a broad range of customers interested in personal fitness. But the company had already forged particularly close ties to the CrossFit phenomena and the business behind it.

In 2010, Reebok signed a 10-year deal with CrossFit Inc., the designer of the strength training and conditioning program that includes gymnastics, weight lifting, running, jumping, and body weight movements.

At the time, 1,500 gyms around the world were affiliated with CrossFit and offered the fitness program. Today, there are more than 7,000.

The program is one of the fastest-growing fitness movements in the United States, and Reebok is the official provider of CrossFit shoes and apparel. Reebok says its training business has experienced double-digit growth each year since the partnership began.

The products range from shoes with flat soles to provide weight-lifting stability and enough flexibility for sprints, to camouflaged-inspired knee-high socks, board shorts, and bright headbands.

Reebok’s emphasis on a new workout regimen recalls the company’s original focus on personal fitness that became wildly successful during the aerobics era. By the mid 1980s, Reebok sales of the Princess, Freestyle, and Ex-o-Fit styles had made the company a temporary leader in the US athletic shoes market, topping rival Nike Inc. for the first time.

In 1989, Reebok made a splash with the iconic Pump, a basketball shoe that marked a new emphasis on team sports. The brand’s popularity grew under sponsorships with National Basketball Association players Shawn Kemp, Shaquille O’Neal, and later Allen Iverson in the 1990s.

Reebok inked a massive deal to supply National Football League apparel in 2002. The contract, estimated at as much as $500 million, lasted a decade, but was taken over by Nike last year.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

The Braintree store is one of Reebok’s new “FitHubs.”

The loss of the NFL contract wasn’t Reebok’s only business problem in 2012. The company had recently agreed to pay $25 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission complaint over its once-popular toning shoes, which regulators said were falsely promoted to consumers. New running shoes introduced in 2011 had done well initially, but Reebok couldn’t sell as many pairs as anticipated last year, said Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsOneSource.

Adidas AG, Reebok’s parent company, cut the brand’s sales target, and the retailer shed 150 jobs.

“Last year was a very down year for them, and 2013 has been an improving year,” Powell said. “Their emphasis on training is starting to pay off.”

Traditionally Reebok sells its shoes and apparel to other retailers, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, at wholesale prices. But the model limits the company’s shelf space and Reebok executives say that made it difficult to project a new image.

“It’s a marketing tool in a way,” O’Toole said of the new Reebok company stores. “You’re able to create a much clearer identity for the brand and help strengthen the consumer’s view by seeing the full expression of it.”

There are about 50 FitHubs around the globe and the count is expected to grow to around 200 by the end of the year. A grand opening for the South Shore Plaza store on Saturday will feature a CrossFit competition. A second local store in Natick is scheduled to open by next March.

Reebok, which also sponsors the annual Reebok CrossFit Games, has expanded its partnerships with other fitness programs in the last year.

The company signed a multiyear deal in January to become the sponsor of Spartan Race, a popular obstacle course series. In September Reebok partnered with Les Mills, a leader in studio fitness training programs with more than 14,000 licensed clubs worldwide. Reebok has also attached its name to more than 100 CrossFit gyms, known as “boxes.”

“There really isn’t anyone who owns the true fitness side of the training market and it’s a big opportunity for them to establish themselves,” Powell said. “They’re on the right track here.”

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.
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