Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Not fit for purpose

Many years ago I was a member of a gym. I'll wait for a moment for the hilarity to die down. It's true - not only was I a member, but I actually went there on a regular basis. And I didn't just used to sit in the juice bar with a towel around my shoulders, making out that I was 'cooling down' - I actually went and used the equipment.

I had a proper routine, all worked out for me by a young chap who was a supreme physical specimen. If aliens had landed at the time he was assessing me, they'd have thought we were two different species. Over a course of six months or so I attended regularly. I used the cardio machines and the weight-lifting apparatus. I didn't use the free weight area as it seemed to be populated by lots of muscle-bound gentlemen who seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time looking at each other in the wall-to-wall mirror. Each to his own.

Briefly I attained a level of fitness that had otherwise eluded me. Well, I say 'level of fitness'. Essentially, I could walk up some stairs without getting out of breath. Ah, the memories.

The gym in question was part of a chain called Fitness First. That seemed a little counter-intuitive to me - I had no discernable fitness at first. In my case, 'Fitness Eventually' might have been more appropriate. In common with many people, over time my interest levels dropped and at the end of the contract period I cancelled, in order to spend more time with my sofa. The company needed a little persuasion for them to understand that I was no longer going to be visiting, but eventually they took the hint and stopped trying to take the monthly fees out of my bank account.

I was reminded of this when I read this story today. In summary, it was about a couple of members of another gym chain - in this case LA Fitness. He had been made redundant, she was eight months pregnant. They were living on benefits and were about to be made homeless. LA Fitness were refusing to allow them to cancel their contract and were insisting that this couple continued to make the payments for a membership they were no longer using.

Even when a journalist from a national paper intervened, LA Fitness continued to demand payment. After an inordinate amount of pressure, the company eventually decided to reduce the contract term. So instead of demanding £780 from an unemployed couple, they only wanted £360 from an unemployed couple.

I'm not making this up.

That's when social media sprang into action. There's nothing quite like a Twitter outrage, is there? Hundreds, possibly thousands of people weighed in to let LA Fitness know exactly what they thought of them. Which, to be honest, wasn't terribly much. A whole new vein of swearing was mined.

Let's be straight. Most of these chain gyms would like you to think they are there to change your body for the better. It would appear, however, that they are subscription-generating factories, using Nautilus machines as bait. Here's the thing: any contract that is sufficiently weighted in favour of one party to the detriment of the other may not be enforceable. I know this because of what I do for a living, but when it's January and you can't fit into your jeans, are you going to look at the small print when you waddle through the doors of your local gym? They know you won't.

Eventually, this evening, a rather curt stream of messages from LA Fitness' Twitter account told us that they had written to the couple to waive the contract. But the fact that it had to get this far should tell us something about the attitude LA Fitness has towards its customers. Seriously, guys, if you couldn't find it in your heart to be nicer, your head should at least have remembered your pocket.

I mention this not because I'm about to join a gym. That would indeed be a cause for comment. If anything, this confirms my long-held opinion that gyms are evil places that should be avoided at all costs. Let's be honest - the chance of me spending any more money at LA Fitness was remote even before today. But some of you out there might be about to enrol with a gym. That's fine. But there are others out there that might understand the concept of human decency.

Remember. If a company shows contempt for its customers, it does not deserve to have any.

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