Sure you can go for a run for free, but if you did you would be off trend. That is one take-away from some new statistics on where people are spending their fitness dollars. According to this article from Quartz (which quotes data from the International, Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, U.S. attendance at specialty gyms is on a tear. Money spent at fancy gyms like SoulCycle and Crossfit grew by 70 percent between 2012 and 2015, and those kinds of facilities now make up 35 percent of the fitness market. It is a pricy way to get fit, but then again the gyms as selling more than just fitness.
Any gym sells an experience, and that in itself is a good retail strategy. It has long been clear that people are open to paying for ‘experiences’ rather than things. Some of this might have to do with the move to not create ‘clutter’, which is a significant consideration given the popularity of books by people such as Marie Kondo. Beyond that, however, it seems that buying an experience just makes people happier, a finding that was borne out by recent research from San Francisco University. Travelling, playing golf, enrolling in an art class, going to a concert – all can make people more satisfied than they would be if they bought things at a mall.
Partly this is because of the social aspect of the experiences. If you buy a shirt for $80, you get the shirt. If you buy a ticket for that amount, you get the experience you paid for (hearing the music at the concert or whatever) plus the experience of being in a lovely concert hall with other people who enjoy the same music you do, whether that means the people you came with or the just other audience members. Selling a ‘luxury’ experience along with a good typically means you can charge more as well, something that Starbucks knows only too well. Yes, your latte may cost $4, but with it comes the chance to sit in a nice environment and work or socialize if you want.
The high end gyms do indeed sell a luxury experience, and if you walk into a yoga studio after having been used to a chain fitness membership, the difference in price can be stunning. As opposed to a big fitness chain that sells annual memberships at a relatively low monthly cost, high end fitness centers often charge by the class. As Quartz points out, that means that they are selling to people who are actually taking classes, rather than those who paid for a membership they may never use.
So why are people willing to pay so much? Partly because they get nice facilities and a nice product as their experience. They also get a sense of ‘belonging’ or ‘community’ something that is apparently absent from many people’s lives these days in North America. Crossfit is a great example of this. Working at a large company, I once saw one guy come up to another he had never met and say ‘I hear you’re a Crossfitter – I am too.’ It was an instant connection, as if they both had kids in the same class or maybe were Trekkies. Being a ‘Crossfitter’ is a bragging right, and is something that is bought along with the hefty price of attending classes.
As well as the social aspects of the gym experience, I would add that the boom in high ending gyms has a lot to do with economic trends as well. These days, one of the clearest retail trends is the split between luxury and economy. At the top end, Burberry and LVMH keep posting strong results, while at the bottom Walmart keeps prices low because their consumers are struggling to make ends meet eight years after the recession officially ended. So yes, gyms are a part of that trends. Towel service, nice toiletries, spa-like surroundings – these are all nice to have, and those who can afford them are apparently happy to pay for them.