Unfair gym contracts common

CHOICE reveals the pressure tactics gyms use to lock you into their contracts.
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  • Updated:29 Apr 2009

03.Gym shadow shop

Our two shadow shoppers each visited nine Sydney gyms separately – two gyms each from Fitness First, Contours, Fernwood and Curves in two different socioeconomic areas, as well as the new Virgin Active gym. A total of 18 gym visits.

Neither shadow shopper who visited the Virgin Active gym or the two Fernwood gyms felt any pressure to sign up immediately. While one reported slight pressure to sign on the spot at one of the Contours and one of the Curves gyms, our shadow shoppers were unanimous that nothing rivalled the heavy sales tactics encountered at Fitness First.

Fitness First, consumers last

Of the two Fitness First gyms visited by our shadow shoppers, one in particular stood out for the salesperson’s intensity. “He couldn’t believe I didn’t want to sign,” reported one of our shoppers. “When I said I needed to speak with my husband, he said, ‘I thought you said he was supportive of you being here’. He said it was only $35 today and if I go it may not be available when I call back.”

Our second shadow shopper said: “He just kept asking me what the problem was.” At two of the four visits to Fitness First outlets, our shadow shoppers reported difficulty in ending the consultation – something they did not experience at any of the other gyms.

Creative pricing

One thing most of the gyms had in common was a creative approach to pricing. Some had printed prices, others handwritten only, but ultimately all seemed to have flexibility in the discounts and incentives they offered. Costs such as joining and administration fees were magically waived or halved as an incentive for our shadow shoppers to sign up.
One Curves consultant and one at each Fitness First outlet even asked leading questions to ascertain how much our shadow shoppers could afford to pay. In the case of one Curves outlet, one shopper was told she couldn’t take the handwritten prices away with her, as a matter of “company policy”.

Fitness First National Operations Manager, Michele Harding, concedes the pricing structure varies from club to club, depending on customer demographics and location. Fernwood Sales Manager, Jo Stagg, says prices across the Fernwood network also differ depending on location, as franchise owners set their own prices.

Our shadow shop revealed that while both Curves and Contours had consistent pricing across their outlets, there were variations in what was waived or charged in terms of joining and administration fees. One Curves outlet quoted a joining fee of $30, while at another it was $199 but a $99 discount was offered.

At a Contours gym, one of our shadow shoppers was quoted a “set-up” fee of $195 for a 12-month contract which was reduced to $95, then an “admin fee” further reduced to $45 during the consultation. At the same gym, our other shopper was told this joining fee would be waived totally if she joined before a certain date. At the second Contours gym, a set-up or administration fee was not mentioned to either shopper and they were both told that the “joining fee” would be waived if they signed a 12-month contract.


Few of the sales assistants at the gyms volunteered information about to how to cancel or put membership on hold. Of the five chains, Virgin Active, followed closely by Fernwood, were the most thorough in providing cancellation information, with one of the two Virgin Active consultants covering every aspect of cancellation or placing membership on hold. Curves and Contours addressed holds or cancellations to some degree, while neither Fitness First gym volunteered any hold or cancellation information.


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