- Flickr / istolethetv
It’s happened to most all of us: We lock ourselves into a gym membership, thinking we’ll go more than three times a week if we’re paying a monthly fee.
After one month of treadmill struggles, we lose motivation.
This is exactly what gyms want.
While most companies would flop if no one showed up, at a gym, emptiness means success.
“Gyms want to be this product that everyone buys, but no one actually uses,” Caitlin Kenney and Stacy Vanek Smith explain on NPR’s Planet Money podcast, “The Planet Money Workout.”
For this business model to work, gyms need to tailor to a specific customer: the person that thinks they’re going to work out, but rarely will – the “casual customer.”
Here are seven strategies gyms use to get you to buy that membership:
They hide the gym equipment.
- Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Walk into most gyms today and you won’t see cardio machines or weights. Rather, you’ll see a snazzy lounge and inviting welcome desk.
This design serves a very specific purpose, Rudy Fabiano, an architect who has designed over 500 gyms all over the world, tells NPR. Loud machines, hefty looking equipment, and sweaty weight lifters are intimidating – not impressive – to the casual customer.
In Fabiano’s most recently designed gym in Chelsea, Manhattan, the sweat and clanking of weights is well hidden: The actual gym part is down a set of stairs, through a lounge, and behind a wall.
They design the welcome lobby to look a cocktail lounge.
- Courtesy of SoulCycle
Instead of laying eyes on equipment upon entering, gyms have created reception areas designed to make you feel like you’re in a fancy restaurant or hotel lobby. The less the gym looks like a gym, the better, Fabiano explains to NPR.
In fact, his latest gym in Chelsea – with clear doors, a white marble welcome desk, and a swanky lounge – resembles a bar more so than a gym. This is completely intentional, as out-of-shape people feel comfortable in bars, he explains, and gyms want to attract this type of customer.
“This kind of design gets you in the door,” Kenney and Vanek Smith explain. “Suddenly, you’re imagining yourself sitting in those chairs, chatting with a friend, and before you know it, you’re shelling out money for a yearly membership.”
They offer perks that aren’t directly related to exercise.
Gyms are trying to sell an experience beyond just sweating on a treadmill and pounding weights. To appeal to the casual customer, they offer less intimidating features that don’t require much physical activity, such as massage chairs, saunas, and café’s.
Many customers end up tricking themselves into thinking they’re working out and using the gym consistently, when in reality, they’re simply lounging.
They take advantage of consumer psychology.
- Flickr / Ivan Fourie
“Joining a gym is an interesting form of what behavioral economists call ‘pre-commitment,'” Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the Wharton School, tells Kenney and Vanek Smith.
Normally, we hate contracts that lock us in for a certain amount of time – such as cell phone or cable contracts – but when it comes to gym memberships, we like the pre-commitment aspect, because we’re convinced it will make us go to the gym more.
“They’re picturing the new me, who’s actually going to go to the gym three times a week and become a physical fitness machine,” Volpp tells NPR.
More times than not, we still don’t go as many times as we think we will.
They offer ridiculously low prices.
- Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
A Planet Fitness membership in New York City will cost you a mere $10 a month, and a Blink membership starts as low as $15.
The reason these gyms are able to offer such enticing prices is because they bank on customers never showing up, which allows them to enroll thousands of members when they only have the space and equipment for a couple hundred. For example, the Planet Fitness on the upper west side of Manhattan that Kenney and Vanek Smith visited reaches capacity at about 300 people – however, they’ve enrolled 6,000 members.
If everyone showed up, they would need 20 times the space – and they would have to charge much more than $10 a month – but nearly half of the members never step foot inside the gym.
They make you sign an annual contract.
- Flickr / Penn State
This strategy is crucial to a gym’s success. Once the gym attracts the “right customer,” it doesn’t matter if they never show up, Kenney and Vanek Smith explain. In order to keep the money flowing, gyms often lock you into an annual contract.
You’ll also find that it can be tricky to cancel these annual contracts.
They offer free food and social events.
- Flickr/Israel Photo Gallery
However, once the annual contracts end, gyms start losing the customers who realized they’re paying for a service they never use. To combat this retention issue, gyms rely on one, final trick: They’ll bait you with free food and social events.
They try to offer value to even the members who rarely work out, so they’ll plan free pizza dinners, bagel breakfasts, and mixers.
The idea is that customers will reflect fondly on their yearly membership and renew the contract, even if in reality, they only showed up on pizza night.