Reading a lot these days about physical fitness and health concerns? The sporting goods industry watches fitness levels, activities and trends, too — all with an eye on its own financial health. Sporting equipment is a $65 billion industry at the wholesale level, according to SGMA International, formerly the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

On the local retail level, selling sporting goods is a matter of finding a niche in a competitive market, sporting goods marketers say. Bob Thomas, for instance, specializes in hunting, fishing and camping.

Thomas owns Outdoor World, which has four stores and an Internet sales site. The Outdoor World store in Modesto opened two years ago, and he also has stores in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.

Thomas was raised in Ceres, but nostalgia wasnt the only reason for returning to do business here.

“We looked at demographics. We are strong in hunting, fishing and camping, and felt we could fill a niche that wasnt being filled,” he said. Stanislaus County is twice as big as Santa Cruz or Monterey counties, he added.

Thomas sees a continued growth in hunting and fishing, as young people look for recreation and fitness activities.

Sportsmen’s organizations like United Anglers of Northern California also help expand the industry, Thomas said.

Funding is a potential limiting factor to the growth, however, Thomas said. The Department of Fish and Game has left 60 warden positions open in next year’s budget, he said — and poaching already is a big problem. Thomas said he’s looking at locations for future stores, as well. “Im very much interested in Merced,” he said, noting the progress on the University of California at Merced. “I like to be in communities with a lot of young people and universities and colleges.”

Denis Sondeno’s Sunsports Ltd. in Turlock specializes in other outdoor niches: skiing and snowboarding, skateboarding, swimming, surfing, water skiing, wakeboarding and backpacking.

The store opened in 1975 as a specialty ski and tennis shop, and the original owners offered it for sale about seven years later. Sondeno, a college student in Long Beach at the time, was working in a ski shop, and his father, Stanley Sondeno, was a business teacher at Modesto Junior College. They decided to buy the store.

The store branched out into other outdoor sports as they became popular, Denis Sondeno said, including skateboards, wakeboards, snowboards. Tennis was dropped because it didnt make economic sense to carry an inventory of racket frames, he said, although he still strings rackets. Specializing in niches like skiing offers advantages to consumers, Sondeno said.

“There are specialty ski and snowboard shops, and there are sporting goods stores that sell skis and snowboards,” he said. “There is a big difference.” The difference is in expert advice and personal service, according to Sondeno.

Sondeno and his staff personally try all the equipment they sell, he said. “To properly fit someone with equipment isnt about walking in and getting the cheapest thing on the wall,” he added.

Sondeno talks with customers to find out their skill level, style of skiing, the terrain they will be on, their weight and height. “We can dial in something that’s the most fun for the money. It’s a value idea rather than a price idea. You will get more value here,” Sondeno said. In addition to custom-fitting ski boots, the shop offers services such as tuning and waxing skis.

“We want to be more intimate with the customers, we want to be able to customize to their needs,” Sondeno said.

Population growth in the area has helped to keep business consistent, he said, but the biggest factor in sales is the weather. “We are farmers. If the almond crop is good, I have customers with money,” he said. “If there is no snow, I have no customers.” The future looks solid, Sondeno said, because he believes consumers are moving away from the “big box” stores and back to specialized shops. “People have done the box store idea, with no one answering their questions. It’s coming to the point where people are steering away from looking for just price. They are looking for value.”

Sheldon Spencer, owner of Valley Sporting Goods in Modesto, chooses to go head-to-head with those “big box” stores as a locally owned independent. He does it by offering the services of a specialty store, developing niche departments like paddle sports and archery, and concentrating on efficiency to keep prices competitive.

Valley Sporting Goods opened in 1946, catching the economic boom that followed World War II. Spencer became a partner in 1978. The business moved as it grew, finally settling in its current McHenry Village location. A key to remaining price-competitive was joining a national trade group, Spencer said. That gives Valley Sporting Goods the volume-purchasing advantages that big chain stores have.

Services like embroidering, tennis racket restringing and trophy work set the store apart from the chain stores as well, Spencer said. Competition has gotten stiffer over the years, Spencer said. “In sporting goods, it comes from everywhere. Raley’s stores have all kinds of sporting goods.”

The Internet is another big competitor.

In the future, Spencer sees steady growth as the region’s population expands.

“It’s a fairly mature industry; we are not looking at rampant growth. But there are categories that are growing. Walking and nature hiking are big growth categories. Among the young, paintball is the fastest-growing,” he said.

There wont be more Valley Sporting Goods stores, though. Spencer figures he already spends too much time doing paperwork — when he prefers to be talking to customers.