LOOKING AFTER YOUR WALLET
By Sarah Coles
Tuesday, April 21, 2009.
There are certain times during the year when gyms see their membership levels jump and queues form next to the treadmills. January, for example, is a busy month as people attempt to work off the Christmas excess. And in spring, anticipation of a beach holiday prompts many of us to increase our weekly exercise.
During the first month, new recruits might go as often as four times a week. A month later, their enthusiasm has waned and, three months in, the treadmills are idle.
When we realise we're never going to go the gym frequently enough to make the cost worthwhile, many of us decide to cancel. That's when the problems start.
Cancelling, making any changes to your membership, or even asking for recompense if half the equipment is broken, will bring you into the busy world of gym complaints.
Consumer Direct received more than 4,600 gym-related complaints in 2008, up 27% on 2007, and almost 100% on 2006. Of these, 37% related to substandard services, 15% to cancellation of membership and 13% to misleading claims or omissions.
Most problems with cancellations usually arise over the minimum membership period, which is generally a year or 18 months. Early cancellation is allowed under certain circumstances, such as redundancy, illness or moving house, but something that you consider a good reason may not necessarily be acceptable to the gym.
Sophie Flemming, a 42-year-old salesperson from north London, joined a gym when she moved to London in 2006. "I used it for four months fairly regularly but, in the fifth month, I fell pregnant," she says. Sophie told the manager of the gym that she needed to cancel her membership.
"It told me I couldn't unless I had a note from my doctor to say it was detrimental to my health to do exercise," she says. With no note, and no desire to exercise during pregnancy, Sophie ended up paying for seven months' membership to a gym she never used.
If you are having problems trying to cancel, check your contract. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) recently found a number of gyms had unfair terms relating to cancellation. It said minimum periods should be made clear and it forced the gyms to change their contracts under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations. It also issued a report warning of terms and conditions for consumers to watch out for.
If conditions are hidden in confusing small print, or a salesperson told you that you could cancel at any time, you have the right to challenge a contract. Fair terms allow for cancellation because of circumstances beyond a member's control. If this isn't stipulated in a contract, again, you have the right to complain.
Substandard service and fees
Cancellation isn't the only area where disputes arise. Pursuing a claim over substandard service will also start with the contract. Some contracts state that the gym doesn't have to continue providing a service in order for fees to be due.
The OFT found this to be unfair so, if your contract says this, you can confront your gym with this finding. If there is no such condition, you can approach the manager for a refund for months when access to key equipment was denied, and pursue a claim from there.
There may also be questions to ask if the membership fee changes during the minimum period. A number of gyms say they have the right to change the membership fee and that this does not give you the right to cancel. The OFT says this term isn't fair either, so you have a right to challenge this.
Making a complaint
Your first port of call should be the gym itself. If that doesn't produce a result, Consumer Direct suggests notifying the head office in writing.
It is tempting to stop your direct debits during any dispute, but this can be dangerous. Consumer Direct says this will put you in breach of contract, and will break agreements with any third-party finance house that may be dealing with the payments. It could reflect badly on your credit record if unpaid membership fees get out of hand.
If you can't get redress on your own, check if your gym is a member of the Fitness Industry Association. This has a code of conduct that members must adhere to, as well as using the OFT template for fair contracts. You should also contact your local Trading Standards Office or the OFT, which will look into any complaint on your behalf.
Failing this, you can always pursue the legal route. You may want to see a solicitor and ask them to write a letter, which they may do on a fixed-fee basis for about £75. You can also take your gym to the small claims court to demand repayment of any amounts you believe should not have been due.
Of course, experts also say that the best bet is to avoid buying something you're unlikely to use in the first place. However, hindsight is a wonderful thing. If you have a problem with a gym, don't be afraid to take them on. They may have the corporate muscle, but the right approach means you'll be able to hold your own in a fight.
With thanks to Interactive Investors where this piece first appeared.