Walk through any major city or drop into a suburban strip mall, and you’re guaranteed to encounter at least a few fitness centers. From major gym chains like Planet Fitness to small yoga studios, these spaces are a critical part of our landscape, offering social connection, health benefits, and acting as a source of income for community members. As the COVID-19 pandemic closed gyms across the country, however, owners and customers faced a major transition. What would communal fitness look like in these strange new times?

Unsurprisingly, when gyms and instructors were backed into a corner, they turned to the internet. Everyone from large chains to solo instructors expanded ecommerce services, offering live-streamed classes, online memberships, and other remote services. Clients were grateful for the temporary bridge and instructors stabilized their income streams by earning money online. The problem is that months have passed and the novelty has worn off – but it’s still not safe to return to gyms. If ecommerce-based fitness is going to thrive in the coming months, brands will need to push innovation further. 

Platform Advancements

Having an appealing, multifunctional platform is at the heart of transitioning fitness from an in-person experience to a remote one, but that’s not an entirely straightforward process, and it’s certainly a very different experience for national gym chains than it is for solo instructors. Large gym chains have a much easier time offering high production quality class streams compared to independent instructors who may just be turning on a web cam in their living room. 

In addition to factors like video quality, chains are also more likely to have organized portals, easy access to payment tools, and access to other business software that gives their offerings a polished look. For clients, that means making a choice between a quality, but mass-produced workout experience and a potentially glitchy but personal class setting.

Self-Directed Versus Instructor-Led

When fitness facilities transitioned to online classes, larger gyms – the types that offer a wide variety of equipment – had to sacrifice a large part of their model. They could only offer class-style programs with minimal equipment, like hand weights, kettlebells, and yoga mats. People who preferred a more self-directed approach to fitness lost their usual outlet. 

Where did the self-directed fitness buffs go instead? This group was more likely to ditch their old gym loyalties and instead access health and fitness resources like Bodypass that could offer advice and workout inspiration. Fitness brands could potentially leverage this shift by developing paywall protected resources, but would need to test such offerings carefully to determine whether they would attract meaningful user interest. There’s a lot of competition, but high-quality content could draw an audience.

The High-Tech Edge

Though many brands had to invent their digital presence from scratch when the COVID-19 pandemic began, a few companies were already riding the cutting edge of fitness-focused ecommerce. Some of these companies are hybrids like Lululemon, offering both fitness experiences like classes, and athletic wear. Companies like this had a more substantial buffer when the pandemic started, if only because they could also earn money on apparel. Lululemon also acquired the high-tech workout brand Mirror recently, further extending their reach into the home fitness sector.

Post-COVID, ecommerce will keep fitness brands afloat, not least of all because experts predict a slow return to gyms, if we see a return at all. A commitment to developing robust digital fitness programs will determine which companies weather the storm, enabling them to survive until the pandemic ends. Then, it will be time to think through their business strategies yet again.