By Robert A. Hamilton
The world is a wreck right now, financially speaking. Jobs are scarce, home foreclosures are at record levels, and even the once-mighty global economic engine, the United States of America, has received a stinging slap in the face in the form of a credit-rating downgrade, making the nation no better than a Visa-addicted spendthrift on a Black Friday sales binge.
Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Yet, there’s one positive to be taken from the pecuniary carnage: The widespread economic woes mean you as a retail consumer are in the driver’s seat. It’s a buyer’s market for everything from houses to cars to one particular thing especially important to the average bodybuilder — a gym membership.
Still, when it comes to negotiations, you have to be on your game. The sales associates who staff the international chains and local mom-and-pop establishments are hungry for business and are usually well versed in all the sly tricks of the trade to get you to drop your guard and pay too much.
To help you combat the hard sell, and slice at least $50 off of your membership price (if not more), we’ve hunted down a couple of insiders, a trainer and a top consumer advocate, to give us the down and dirty details of acquiring a membership on the cheap. Here are their seven best tips.
1. Take the tour around the first of the month … but don’t sign up until the end of the month
Most sales associates are on some sort of quota system, or at least their paycheck depends on how many new members they get to sign on the dotted line. Use that to your advantage.
By going on the first of the month and engaging an associate, you’ll start the clock as far as that person “investing” his time in you. Don’t commit to anything that first day — just be sure to leave with at least a weeklong pass to try the club, which you should take advantage of to know whether you even like the facility.
“Over the course of the month, the associate will call you quite a few times to see if you’re interested in signing up, but string him along,” says Christine Frietchen, editor-in- chief of ConsumerSearch.com, a highly trafficked website devoted to educating shoppers on how best to spend their money on thousands of products and services. “At the end of the month, when the sales team is under pressure to close sales, that’s when you go in and deal. At that point, they’ll be much more ready to make price concessions to land a new member.”
2. If you can, wait until the winter to join
The same idea behind signing up at the end of a month also goes for the end of the year, says Kim Truman, a Dallas-based health, wellness and lifestyle coach and industry insider (KimTrumanFitness.com). “If a club is behind on its annual sales goals toward the end of the fourth quarter, they’ll offer promotions like ‘no dues until 2012’ to attract customers,” says Truman, meaning you can get 1–2 months free.
Also — and it may sound cliché — but perhaps the best time of the year to sign up for a gym membership may be January, says Truman. “Most clubs set big sales goals in January, knowing the New Year’s resolution types will join up,” she explains. “Clubs will budget discounts to capture them, knowing most will want and expect a deal. Whether it’s no initiation fees, a free month or a decreased dues amount with a contract or extended agreement, they know they can make up for any loss with a large overall number of new members.”
3. Keep your mouth shut
When you first walk into a club and mention you’re interested in joining, you’ll quickly be paired with the sales associate who will escort you on a tour of the club. If he’s good, he’ll give you a firm handshake and engage you in some friendly banter as he walks the floor, pointing out all the amenities.
But this isn’t just a social chat he’s after. “The associate is after key information about you,” warns Frietchen. “He or she wants to know more about your job to gauge how much you can afford, your family to know whether you’re a candidate for a multi-person membership, and your workout experience to see if they can rope you into other add-on services like personal training.”
It’s not a fatal error, but any private information you freely hand over slides potential bargaining chips across the table for use against you. On the tour, then, you certainly can be friendly, but don’t disclose anything about yourself you don’t have to. “I’d suggest being as vague as possible without being rude,” Frietchen adds. “You want the salesperson to feel that he’s making a connection with you so he’ll feel comfortable calling you to follow up.”
4. Never pay an “initiation” or sign-up fee
Gyms include this fee to try and capture the costs associated with prospective member acquisition, which indeed can be considerable. But so many clubs have buckled on this fee, using it as a negotiating tool to bargain with customers by waiving all or part of it, that it’s now firmly in play. “In many clubs, it’s almost a given that the fee will be reduced or waived if the customer negotiates for it,” Frietchen says.
Truman says gyms are most hesitant to lower monthly membership fees during a negotiation, but instead will use other incentives at their disposal. “They’ll often lower or discard initiation fees if pressed. Also be sure to angle for bonuses like free personal-training sessions, discounts on spa services, or even free apparel.”
5. Be prepared to pay upfront
When you sit down to talk contracts, make sure the associate covers all the options, including month-to-month memberships, as well as those of a year duration or more. Of course, you’ll find the longer the length of the contract, the lower the monthly dues.
From your point of view, the ideal situation is the lowest dues possible for a month-to-month membership. However, to get a good deal, you may need to be ready to go at least a year (although in any event, you’ll want to be sure there’s a fair “out” clause in the contract — if not, you’re better off continuing to shop around, especially considering the horror stories regarding harassing collection calls and ruined credit that abound associated with certain global chains).
Once you have the prices presented to you, calculate the costs over 12 months, and then ask what discount you would receive if you instead paid the year in full at sign-up. “Usually, you can expect a discount of anywhere from 5–15% for an upfront payment,” Frietchen says. “For the gym, getting all that money in a lump sum is a way better deal than having to wait, so they should give you some consideration for that.”
6. Bring a friend
What’s better for a sales associate than selling one gym membership? Selling two. That fact gives you leverage if you have a friend who’s also ready to sign on the dotted line, and you shop the gym together to see what kind of deals they’re prepared to offer.
Another angle is more cumbersome, depending on the size of the company you work for (and the red tape in the human resources department), but you could also consider trying to encourage your place of employment to sign up to the club as a corporate member. “Especially during January, health clubs give more perks to attract new corporate memberships, just because of the number of new members that can bring,” Truman points out. Those deals work out to be especially sweet for the employees as the cost per person is oftentimes significantly lower.
7. Shop around
Even if you have your sights firmly set on a particular gym, because of the amenities or the proximity to your home or job, it still pays to check out at least 3–4 and get the best offer from each. Not only does it give you an idea of fair-market dues, but it also gives you a platform on which to ask for a discount to match or beat a competitor. (Associates are coached to counter that with an argument of superior amenities, so be ready for that parry.)
In addition, do a search online to find out if there’s blog or message board chatter regarding deals others may have received at your gym. Health clubs can be notoriously opaque about their pricing — just try to find posted rates on any major chain’s website — but secondhand information from the web is better than none when talking with the sales rep.
Admittedly, not all gyms will negotiate. In New York City, Equinox clubs are known for their uncompromising stance as far as discounting monthly dues, although you can sometimes negotiate discounts for other services offered by the clubs. (You can also get a $50 discount by offering to pay your year’s dues up front.)
But in the end, if one club won’t wheel and deal, chances are, another will. So be open-minded in your selection process and don’t just lock your sights onto one option. “In this bad economy, the customer is king,” Truman says. “You’d be remiss not to use that fact to your greatest possible advantage.”
Feelin’ Like You’re on a Used Car Lot?
The best clubs sell themselves. So it’s a good bet that if you’re getting the “hard sell” from an associate, the gym itself may have some hidden surprises.
“Gyms desperate for new members are often losing a lot of existing members, and need the churn to make the numbers work,” says Christine Frietchen, editor-in-chief of ConsumerSearch.com. “Aggressive sales tactics should raise your antenna. If you can, ask existing members about the club. Is it well maintained, or are there problems with musty locker rooms and broken equipment? Are etiquette rules enforced, or is it every exerciser for him or herself?”
The “out” clause in a contract is also telling. “The harder it is to reasonably exit a membership contract, the more likely it is that the gym has some undesirable characteristics,” Frietchen contends. “And if they say you can escape a contract only by selling it yourself to someone else, run the other way as fast as you can.”