Pushy sales strategy called into question

18/06/2009 - 00:00


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ON October 16 1997, the selling techniques of the fitness industry received unprecedented attention.

Pushy sales strategy called into question

ON October 16 1997, the selling techniques of the fitness industry received unprecedented attention. It was not the date of a major fitness chain collapse or landmark legal decision, but marked an episode of popular American sitcom, Friends, poking fun at the difficulty of leaving a gym.

"We're doomed," said central character Chandler Bing after yet another unsuccessful attempt to cancel his membership. "Okay, they're gonna take 50 bucks out of our accounts for the rest of our lives. What are we gonna do?"

Gym-goers frustrated with their fitness centre often refer to the sitcom episode, regarded as a comical representation of a societal issue.

Gavin Pratt, part owner of Warehouse Fitness Centre in South Fremantle, said the sales-driven approach frustrated people wanting to get some prices and compare gyms.

"The people at the front desk have to act dumb," Mr Pratt said. "They say, 'We don't know the prices, you'll have to speak to our sales consultants'."

Indeed, few Perth gyms contacted by WA Business News clearly displayed their prices on their website or at the front counter, or gave pricing information out over the phone. Instead, most insisted on a meeting with a sales consultant.

Membership is the single most important source of a fitness organisation's revenue, according to a 2008 Fitness Australia report.

Consumer group Choice received a lot of consumer feedback after investigating the sales techniques used at gyms, with the response rivalling other irritable subjects such as cash-back offers (with restrictive details making it hard to actually get the cash) and extended warranties (often not worth the paper they are written on).

Choice spokeswoman Elise Davidson said high-pressure selling practices, such as claiming a deal was about to run out so the client must sign up right away, was a major concern. She said Choice found that some sales representatives used emotional connections with their clients to guilt them into joining or staying at a gym.

The consumer organisation named major chain Fitness First as using the highest-pressure tactics among the handful of gyms scrutinised.

Fitness First Australia managing director Tony de Leede has regularly justified the company's hard-sell approach, arguing the fitness chain sells 'life' by helping people improve their health and live longer.

Robert Barnes, general manager of operations for industry body Fitness Australia, said the industry was very customer focused and the criticism was unfair because most people were extremely happy with their gym.

"What Choice doesn't tell the media is that the complaints against Fitness First are less than 1 per cent of the membership of Fitness First," Mr Barnes said.

"It's more annoying than detrimental to the industry."

He said proposed changes to the supervision of the industry meant state regulations would be replaced with a national system, which would be a positive for both fitness centres and gym-goers.

Proposed national consumer laws governing contracts - the source of many fitness-centre related complaints - are intended to find a balance between the rights and obligations of consumers (gym-goers) and traders (fitness centre operators).

Gyms are aware that contract terms need to be changed as the effects of the financial slowdown bite.

"As times get tough, new customers may be more difficult to attract and are likely to be increasingly wary of committing to long term contracts," the Fitness Australia report says.

"It is clear from this research that fitness organisations are already offering a range of fixed-term contract offers, and it is likely that shorter term, more flexible contracts will become increasingly important in attracting consumers who are in a more precarious financial situation."

In the Friends episode, Chandler decides to close his bank account so that the gym can no longer take out $50 a month. After being directed to the woman in the bank who exclusively deals with closures, he is up-sold, and walks away with an extra bank account.



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