January 2022 was a key month for the UK gym & health club industry. After almost 2-years of turbulence caused by Covid and the lockdowns that followed, many fitness operators have pinned their hopes on a strong recovery at the start of 2022.
As a fitness marketplace that collaborates with thousands of UK gyms seeking new customers, Hussle is ideally placed to attempt to shed some light on how the gym industry performed during this key month.
We have used proprietary search data from the Hussle marketplace and supplemented this with analysis taken from Google trends and Semrush to inform the following observations.
Customer demand volumes are almost ‘back to normal’
When assessing customer demand volumes, we are looking at the number of searches made by customers online for gym-related search terms.
Pre-Covid, the typical month-on-month increase between December and January in any given year was +50%. This means that if 1m customer searches were carried out in December you could reasonably expect that in the subsequent January you would see 1.5m customer searches. So +50% is the benchmark to keep in mind.
The increase in customer demand volumes between Dec-21 and Jan-22 was massive, at +96.7%.
This is a significant increase; however it doesn’t take a great deal of thought to offer up theories around why this jump in demand looks so dramatic given the weak trading environment at the end of 2021.
A better comparison is to consider the absolute volume of customer searches to the historic peak of the market, which in the UK was January 2020. This comparison enables us to draw more conclusions about whether or not ‘demand is back’.
On this basis January 2022 is back up to 95% of the absolute volumes seen in January 2020.
Volumes are high but demand is ‘soft’
Whilst high demand is obviously great for the gym industry, it is important to note that demand varies both in quantity and quality. So how ‘good’ has the quality of the demand been?
This is where the science moves from objective to subjective. At Hussle we group customer search terms into ‘high intent’ and ‘low intent’ cohorts as a proxy for the quality of the demand volume.
For example, a high intent search term might relate to specific gym exercises or venues which indicates a customer that is more likely to be ‘transactional’.
A low intent search term would be more generic, such as ‘gym’ or ‘gyms near me’ which indicates a customer that is in a consideration phase without necessarily progressing to a transaction.
The segmentation of these cohorts can obviously be debated, however in 2018 and 2019 the high and low intent search terms would typically increase proportionately. In January 2022 this was not the case.
Whilst the low intent search terms did increase dramatically, the high intent search terms lagged behind. This suggests that for most of the month customers showed a lot of interest in gyms and health clubs but were reluctant to transact as you would normally expect them to during a ‘normal’ January. Demand was high, but largely ‘soft’.
At Hussle, our working hypothesis is that ongoing Covid restrictions and work from home guidance for most of the month likely delayed the purchasing decisions of some customers that were otherwise ready (itching!) to get back to the gym. This is supported by anecdotal feedback from operators who saw a slow start to the month offset by a strong finish with many eventually exceeding (largely conservative) targets.
If this is the case then high overall demand volumes offer a reassuring picture for operators that haven’t had the January they hoped for despite a strong close out, particularly in urban areas most impacted by Government guidance to work from home where possible.
So….February and March could be very promising.
Brand traffic is significantly down as operators hold back
Another interesting factor in January 2022 was the reduction in brand traffic. Brand traffic relates to customer search terms that reference a particular fitness brand. Typically, this increases in January as the gym industry invests in marketing to compete for their voice to be heard.
If you compare brand search terms in January 2020 with January 2022 the volumes are down between 20-50% depending on which operator you analyse.
This means that the increase in overall demand volume has not been generated by operators throwing money at the market.
This is understandable perhaps, given the balance sheet position of (some) operators after a bruising 2-years, or through a lack of confidence in what the trading environment would look like in January when (all) operators were making media buying decisions in December.
High attrition remains a risk
Anecdotal feedback throughout the second half of 2021 suggested that operators were seeing increased attrition from new members. To assess this and broaden our understanding of market dynamics in January 2022, we analysed search terms relating to ‘cancellation’ of memberships.
We discounted 2020 altogether as the turbulence caused by lockdowns significantly distorted the data.
However, if you compare 2018 & 2019 to 2021, searches for membership cancellation related terms were up by 54% on average which may suggest that even new members are staying for a much shorter period of time.
This is a data point that should remain under review throughout 2022 to better understand if high attrition is the ‘new normal’ or simply an anomaly.
1.) Customer confidence appears to be returning, but it’s not completely back. This potentially means that ‘peak’ demand for gyms and health clubs in 2022 may extend beyond the traditional ‘January jump’ into February and March, offering hope to operators that were disappointed by the start of the year, particularly in urban locations that were most affected by Government guidance to work from home
2.) Investment in marketing by operators within the gym industry has reduced significantly year-to-date. This presents an opportunity for well capitalised operators to gain significant market share through returning consumer confidence in February and March. We expect to see significant investment in marketing from well-funded operators over the coming weeks.
3.) Operators should be prepared for member tenure to be significantly reduced, at least in the short-term, with customers moving towards shorter bursts of active membership. This will need to be factored into any investment in customer acquisition marketing as the reduced lifetime value (LTV) of customers will directly impact what is sustainable from a customer acquisition cost (CAC) perspective. If operators over-invest in acquiring members that don’t stay long enough to generate a return on investment (ROI) this may create cashflow problems in future.
Interested in using Hussle to help generate new leads, sign up new members and generate revenue? Find out more here.