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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Gym Shopping, Corporate Greed, and Disability

          After years of paying more than newcomers at LA Fitness and being refused a lower rate upon one request, I decided it was time to do some “gym shopping.” The experience of changing gyms taught me a few things and reinforced some old lessons about corporate greed, being a consumer, and disability experience.

          A couple weeks ago, I inquired about putting my membership at the gym on hold. My search for a new gym hadn’t uncovered a better deal yet, but I felt pretty certain I was done with LA Fitness. I expected a one-time fee. When I learned that putting my membership on hold only reduced my monthly fee – making sure my membership remains frozen no doubt eats up oodles of manpower each month – I told the guy at the front desk to cancel my membership.

          Suddenly, I was the prized member.

          Why would you want to quit? Is it the fee? Oh, we can reduce that by $10 a month. Bored with your workout? Have a free training session.

          Stupidly, I guess, I hesitated on my decision to quit. I took the free training session and thought about staying with the reduced fee. The trainer gave me some nice tips, and saving 10 bucks a month began to seem like a good deal.

          Unfortunately, it was a phantom deal. When I tried to take the offer a week later, the lower rate suddenly came with a “buy down.” I could still have a lower rate . . . for something like $200 upfront. Somewhere in Corporate America I’m sure that sounds like a great deal for the consumer. Of course, they tend to think consumers are idiots. (To be fair, the American public has provided plenty of supporting evidence for their line of thinking.)

          This is a club that hasn’t updated their equipment in years. The lack of modernization is due to declining membership, according to one acquaintance. The location probably won’t even be open 20 months from now when I would have started “saving” money from the “buy down.”

          Obviously, I passed on the offer.

          At the time I was assured that as long as I quit LA Fitness before the first of March I wouldn’t be charged for the month . . . again. See, I actually paid for my “last month” (which would be March) when I joined LA Fitness.

          So, I increased my efforts to find another gym. By a stroke of luck, one of those annoying telemarketing calls everyone hates came from my health care provider, reminding me that my membership at certain gyms was covered by my health insurance. Amazingly, the best gym that I had investigated, the YMCA, was on the list. The drive to the Y wasn’t any further than going to Havertown – one of the two LA Fitness locations I used. The Y also has aerobic equipment for the upper body that I can use as a person in a wheelchair – something that was foreign to LA Fitness.

          For the sake of full disclosure, the price I was paying at LA Fitness wasn’t too bad compared to other gyms. The Y was out of my price range without the insurance. There was a Planet Fitness that was much closer than the Y and cheaper than both LA Fitness and the Y (before the insurance). It was ok, but very stripped down and offered zero upper body aerobic equipment that I can use. Planet Fitness also is not quite as cheap as they advertise – every year or six months (I forget) there’s a $30 payment that they just sort of slip in. There was a local gym that my insurance covered, too, which was slightly more expensive than LA Fitness without the insurance though it had better equipment. But it just felt a little too small and didn’t have the ergo meter (think “stationary handcycle”) that the Y offers.

          Finally, on Sunday, I went over to LA Fitness to quit having joined the Y the previous day. I figured 3 full weekdays would leave ample time to avoid a payment for March. I went from the prized member to the guy who had betrayed them. And they went from existing in 2012 to 1912.

          Only a manager can cancel a membership and he’s not here. In fact, it used to be that only corporate could do it. And you have to quit 10 days ahead of time or we have to charge you for the next month.

          I guess it takes a while for the Pony Express to deliver the cancellation paperwork. Never mind that their own website under “Cancel Membership” reads: “Club memberships with recurring dues may be cancelled at any time. . . . A cancellation postmarked at least 5 business days before your next billing date should result in no further recurring billing. If less than 5 business days, you may be billed one more time. If this occurs, L.A. Fitness will refund that additional billing.”

          Are their employees trained to give members who want to quit the runaround? Probably. Or maybe it was just special treatment for wheelchair users who they think they can fleece. I’ll admit some paranoia in the last sentence, but not much. My mother quit LA Fitness with a simple phone call. And somehow one phone call from her the next day made it possible for the guy at the front desk to cancel my membership without charging me for the next month (again) when I went back to the gym. It literally took him about two minutes. (Computers are just fabulous, aren’t they?)

          Sorry, but I’ll never buy that such incidents have nothing to do with my disability.

          My Sunday was topped off with a call to my bank. Thinking I could cut LA Fitness off at the source – yes, I saw that episode of Friends too – I wanted to revoke their right to take funds from my account. And I could have done so . . . for about a $35 fee.

          It’s sweet to see corporations working together to try to pick my pocket.

          But that’s just the way it is, there’s nothing we can do about it, and corporations have a right to make a profit. Or something like that.

          The experience wasn’t all bad. I don’t think I’ve ever acted more like a conscientious consumer in my life. I got over my fears of my speech disability enough to go into multiple gyms to ask for tours. I even shared some rather loud thoughts with the first guy who wouldn’t cancel my membership at LA Fitness.

          I don’t think people with disabilities are taught to be real consumers when we are kids. We’re certainly not taught to raise our voices. That’s how we get labeled a “bitter cripple” after all.

          Either by what we’re taught by the actions of others or our own instincts, we stick with what works instead of looking for something better. At least I do. I knew LA Fitness was screwing me for years, but I was comfortable working out there so I tolerated the nonsense. In almost 7 years, I’d never once seen a new piece of machinery at either LA Fitness location that I frequented. I actually began traveling to the Havertown location, which is further from my home than the nearest LA Fitness, because the elevator at the gym near my home was constantly out of order. For a couple years I went to the Havertown location exclusively because the exercise bikes in that facility were better than the ones I’d been using. I went to both locations for the last 15 months – cycling at Havertown, lifting weights at the closer location. LA Fitness even sent lower monthly offers than what I paid to my mom because she quit the gym, and turned their noses up at me when I requested a better deal.

          Find a new gym has forced me out of my comfort zone to shop around for the better deal and actually start working out in a new place. The experience might turn out to be as valuable as keeping the $35 a month LA Fitness was siphoning from my bank account.

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