Why does buying a gym membership have to be like buying a car?

gymHigh pressure sales tactics to "buy today" must work, or salespeople at auto dealers and vacation timeshares wouldn't be using them.
But at a gym, where an annual membership is much less than buying a new car or timeshare rental?

In an effort to save a few bucks, I took one of the many fliers I get in the mail from a local gym offering a 30-day free trial and went to check it out. I walked in expecting to get hammered by a strong sales pitch, and I was determined to decline and not sign any contracts. My goal was to get the 30 days of free membership, and then if I decided it was a fair deal to continue membership, I'd join.

That's one of the first rules when checking out a gym: get a free trial membership. But right away I could tell that even without the $99 registration fee, $35 processing fee and $10 locker fee, this gym was a little too expensive for me. If I locked in "today," and "today only" for a year's membership, I'd pay $57 a month. That would drop to $49 a month if I signed a three-year contract.

All of the fees, except for $35, would be dropped if I bought today. The $35 would be refunded if I decided not to join within two weeks. I asked if I could think about it for a night. No, the deal was for today only. After that, even within the 30 days of my free trial, I'd still have to pay the other fees, although they'd probably knock off the processing fee, the saleswoman told me.
After I politely declined, she said OK, and that I could start the 30-day tryout immediately. But then she asked a guy in the cubicle next to hers to come over. This is when it started to feel like I was at a timeshare presentation or at an auto lot. The "closer" was being called in.

He went over the same details, making me feel like an idiot who doesn't understand things the first time. For $35, today, he told me, I could be a member without all of the other fees. I could get the $35 back if I changed my mind within two weeks. Again, I told them both that I wasn't going to sign anything today and wanted to try the place out for a month to see if I liked it.

I didn't have $35 in cash on me, and I wasn't about to let them hook in to my credit or debit card. I've been down that road before with a gym, and had to tell my bank not to accept the gym's automatic withdrawals after they refused to cancel my contract.

I again told the salesman "No thanks." I went back to my car, got my gym bag and went swimming in their pool for half an hour.

I understand why high-pressure sales tactics are used at such places as gyms, auto dealers and timeshares -- it's unlikely I'll step foot in there again unless they convince me immediately to buy what they offer. And I realize that gyms must rely on automatic payments from people locked into long-term contracts who don't use the service that often.

But my feeling is that if it's such a good deal, then I'll return to buy it after thinking about it for a few days.

I did my homework before I went, so I knew what prices they'd have to beat. For about the same cost as a monthly gym membership, I can get a monthly swim pass at the local community pool where I swim laps most mornings.

And the lifeguards there don't ask me again and again to "buy now."

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at www.AaronCrowe.net
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