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The gym industry is rattled by a flabby January as customers resist membership plans over $10

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A post-pandemic growth spurt for gyms in the US came to an abrupt halt in January, usually the busiest month of the year.

Foot traffic to major gyms was flat from January 2023, according to mobile phone location data for 10 chains tracked by January visits rose more than 40% in each of the past two years at the clubs, which include both closely held ones like Equinox Holdings Inc. and listed ones like Planet Fitness Inc. and Xponential Fitness Inc.

The slow start may signal a tough year ahead if traffic doesn’t expand. Planet Fitness, seen as a proxy for the industry as it’s the largest listed chain, usually adds about 400,000 members in January, about a quarter of its 1.7 million yearly sign ups, Chief Financial Officer Tom Fitzgerald said at a conference last month.

Xponential is expected to report its slowest revenue growth for the first quarter since going public in 2021, while Planet Fitness is on track for its second-worst quarterly sales growth since 2021.

Some gyms did see an increase in traffic in January. Visits to Equinox were up 12% year on year, according to a company spokesperson. 

Analysts are largely blaming a harsh winter in much of the US, alongside stiffening competition, but aren’t ruling out other factors. “We’re unsure so we try to be soft [in our note],” TD Cowen Director of Retail and Fitness Max Rakhlenko said in an interview.

Attempts to raise prices may also be hurting signups. Planet Fitness planned a temporary pause of its testing of higher prices in a small number of markets to bring back its regular, widely advertised $10-per-month promotion over January. “We believe this was an indication the advertising campaign was not producing the desired results,” Stifel analyst Chris O’Cull said in a note on February 5. 

That may signal the industry will be hamstrung by low prices in the future. Investment is flowing primarily into cheaper gyms, and Stifel’s O’Cull sees Planet Fitness potentially being reliant on its promotional offers to drive growth.

“A $10 price point is really where investors and the industry is gravitating toward,” TD Cowen’s Rakhlenko said.

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