The Decline of Curves: Back To The Slow Lane

America has always been known for its frenetic lifestyle and “speed at any cost” culture. McDonald’s, the global popularizer of fast food, is a quintessential American success story. And countless time saving consumer products, ranging from the Singer sewing machine to the Whirlpool washing machine, first became household necessities in the United States.

The desire to speed through the chores and tasks of daily life pervade every American consumer sector. To serve this need, supermarkets have replaced traditional cash register counters with express lanes and self-service lines. Consumer banks have likewise encouraged customers to avoid teller lines and utilize automated teller machines and online web services instead. Even matchmaking services have jumped into the fray, utilizing software algorithms and speed dating events to accelerate the process of falling in love.

Several years ago, a chain of health clubs called Curves grew to industry dominance by offering a fast paced daily workout, one that could be completed in a mere thirty minutes of sweating and straining. Scheduled during a lunch hour, patrons could actually complete their daily regimen and grab a light lunch before returning to work! This formula appeared to be perfectly suited for the energetic American lifestyle; thus, many industry analysts took note last week at the news that Curves was continuing to close thousands of club locations.

Demand, Not Supply

Why do firms like Curves encounter such problems? Well, some service organizations are victims of their own success; they inspire the emergence of competitors who increase the supply of available services and thus drive down retail prices. In such situations, although the pioneering firm may struggle mightily to compete against lower priced rivals, it can at least depend upon the continuing popularity of its core product.

This has been the situation confronting Starbucks, for instance, in its ongoing battle to defend its market share against McDonald’s McCafe, Dunkin’ Donuts, and other rivals; however, it hasn’t been the situation for Curves. Quite the contrary, Curves has not needed to confront any major competitors offering thirty minute workouts for a simple reason: the fast paced regimen itself has suffered a precipitous decline in popularity.

To be sure, Curves’ strategy of focusing on women has certainly placed a cap on overall demand for its services; after all, its emphasis on females artificially excludes all male health club consumers. And the continuing economic recession has undoubtedly led certain consumers to perceive any health club regimen, even one that lasts for a mere thirty minutes, as an unaffordable luxury. Nevertheless, the decline of demand for accelerated exercise programs at Curves is not solely attributable to gender bias and consumer cost considerations; it can also be attributed to a change in American demographic patterns and social lifestyles.

Beyond the Youth Culture

The aging of the baby boom generation, for instance, has increased the percentage of American women who fall within the senior age range, leaving fewer women in the prime years of their lives who wish to exercise on a daily basis. And the gravitation of American businesses to emerging regions like the Dakotas and Nebraska has made it difficult for Curves to earn the same high profits per location that it otherwise earns by attracting large numbers of consumers to clubs in extremely dense urban areas.

Other segments of the American economy appear to be gravitating towards slower paced lifestyle activities as well. Major League Baseball, long known as the oldest and slowest of all American professional sports, continues to enjoy a Renaissance of popularity. And the livable city movement, featuring homes spaced closely enough to allow residents to stroll to town centers on foot, continues to invigorate cities like Portland, Oregon.

This is not to say, of course, that Americans are prepared to relinquish their kitchen appliances and automobiles and return to a preindustrial lifestyle! Nevertheless, it does appear that Americans may be growing weary of maintaining one of the longest work weeks in the developed world; the attractiveness of adding thirty minutes of intense exercise each day to that burden may be waning a bit.

Keeping Healthy

Interestingly, despite this new aversion for fast-paced workouts, Americans appear to be more concerned about their health than ever. They continue to quaff huge amounts of water, low calorie beers, and green teas, while avoiding the heavy sugar loaded colas and calorie laden beers of an earlier era.

They also have many more mature athletic role models than ever, with runners over 100 years of age now competing in marathons, and major league baseball players such as Julio Franco and Jamie Moyer playing well into their late 40s. In fact, images of seniors briskly dancing and ocean sailing now dominate the marketing campaigns of most retirement investment management and newsletter firms.

Nevertheless, such strenuous activities are certainly NOT being scheduled in the brief thirty minute time slots once popularized by Curves. Although Americans increasingly value healthy lifestyles, they appear to have decided to shift their wellness activities into the slow lane.