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People are tired of working out in their kitchens and bedrooms. Picture: BLOOMBERG.
People are tired of working out in their kitchens and bedrooms. Picture: BLOOMBERG.
Image: Bloomberg

Peloton Interactive’s troubles are not just down to self-inflicted wounds. There is mounting evidence that consumers are desperate to get back to the gym. 

But two years of exercising in the kitchen have reshaped the fitness industry. While Peloton must appeal to customers who want to feel the burn in real life again, gyms and other operators must adapt to a world where home-working and home working-out remain prevalent.

Weekly US gym visits recovered from September onwards, rising above 2019 levels from the end-November through Christmas, according to Placer.ai, a foot-traffic analysis company. Planet Fitness said in November that it had 15-million members, almost back to its pre-pandemic peak of 15.5-million. These trends are significant because people tend to visit fitness centres less towards the end of the year, before getting motivated again in January.  

The Omicron outbreak put a dent in people hitting the gym at the beginning of January. But the picture improved by the second week of the month, according to Placer.ai. For the most part, enthusiasm for in-person workouts remains strong.

Online searches for gyms are rising on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Hussle, a UK marketplace that connects clubs with fitness enthusiasts, such searches typically increase 50% between December and January. This year, they are up 97%, based on search-engine and proprietary data.

Not all of this will translate into attendance, of course. But as pandemic restrictions ease, February or even March could be the new January gym boom period. In Britain, there has already been an uptick in membership as some Covid-19 rules were relaxed this week.

Plus, with signs that Omicron is peaking, and appetite for travel rising, the prospect of beach holidays will be another impetus to get back in shape and shed those lockdown pounds.

This bodes well for fitness centres that survived the pandemic. The US industry alone lost almost $30bn of revenue between March 2020 and June 2021. As of July 2021, some 22% of US clubs permanently closed, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. 

Although the number of gyms has shrunk, the range of fitness alternatives has exploded. It’s not just Peloton anymore. There’s competition from personal training via zoom to dog-friendly outdoor classes. Meanwhile, members expect all clubs, regardless of how much they pay each month, to offer some level of digital options. Like flexible working, hybrid fitness — blending online and in-person exercise — is here to stay. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but against this backdrop, the budget chains look best placed. That includes Planet Fitness, but also Netherlands-based Basic-Fit, Britain’s The Gym Group, as well as privately held Pure Gym Group Plc, which recently received a £300M investment from KKR & Co.

A low-cost monthly membership gives customers access to a physical location and often includes online classes. But it is also cheap enough that they can afford to purchase other fitness services too — for example a particular online class or a personal trainer — without breaking the bank. Maybe $10 a month to use extra training equipment isn’t that much on top of a $39 monthly Peloton fee.

What’s more, many value chains opened in cheaper suburban locations rather than expensive city centres. That’s now an advantage as consumers demand facilities close to both their homes and workplaces. No wonder no-frills operators are expanding to take advantage. 

Peloton and Lululemon Athletica’s Mirror and other home-exercise companies must find a way to coexist with brick-and-mortar rivals.

Peloton is mainly focusing on the hospitality market, installing its bikes in hotels in North America and Europe. The $420m acquisition of equipment maker Precor in late 2020 was designed to further expand its capabilities outside of the home. Lululemon has struggled to make the most of its $500m acquisition of interactive home-fitness company Mirror in 2020, halving its full-year sales forecast for the business in December. It’s using its stores as a path to recovery, placing Mirror shops in many US outlets and offering classes in them too.

Both the athleisure retailer and the home-fitness group need to forge further into the IRL experience. One interesting spin comes from activist calls for a sale of Peloton. An apparel or technology company is seen as the most likely acquirer. But how about a gym, hospitality group or property operator? One that could combine Peloton’s technology with brick-and-mortar locations?

If such a wild-card buyer were to emerge, it might be Peloton bikes, not just their riders, showing up at the gym.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

Bloomberg 

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