Australia’s latest raft of Covid-19 control measures have forced gyms – alongside the likes of indoor sports centres, swimming pools, co-working spaces, galleries, theatre companies and beauty salons – to close to their doors for the foreseeable future. That means their customers are faced with the dirty work of cancelling ongoing direct debits, or seeking refunds on services they have already prepaid for. If, that is, they want to.
With the country in economic crisis, deciding to pull the pin on a contract isn’t a simple equation. Cancelling a membership with a giant fitness corporation might not keep you up at night, but what if your favourite yoga studio is a small business at serious risk of going bankrupt?
One Sydney gym-goer, Josephine Parsons, says she is “completely happy” to keep paying her membership fees during the coronavirus crisis. “Our small business owners need us right now. I know I’m really lucky to still have a full-time job, so I want to do everything I can.”
She’s a member of Fortitude Fitness Merrylands, an independently owned women’s gym in the city’s western suburbs. When the lockdown measures were announced, its owner, Eliza Olds asked members to continue paying a lower fee of $10 a week so that the business could stay afloat. In exchange, she’d offer livestreamed exercise classes online. Olds says 70% of her members were happy with that arrangement – but that consumer law prevents her from charging direct debits while the business is closed.
“We’re a little community, we support each other,” she says. “[Members] are happy to keep on paying a smaller fee, my trainers were relieved they didn’t have to go line up at Centrelink … the solution that I came up with was a very good solution.”
Olds says that in lieu of the direct debit, she could ask members to transfer money to the gym’s bank account. “But it’s a very big job to ask 400 people to transfer you money,” she says. “Nobody will do it because everybody is stressed out. With direct debit, people are happy to pay because you don’t have to do anything.”
She’s trying to find a workaround. “We won’t be able to survive if we can’t … it’s a very difficult time.”
“If you want to proactively support a business, you can and you should,” says Erin Turner from the consumer advocacy group Choice. “But not everyone’s going to be in that financial situation.”
If you do need to cancel, the good news is that ongoing direct debit for things like gym memberships should have already been suspended. “Under the Australian consumer law, a business can’t charge you for a service they can’t reasonably provide,” Turner says. “You can stop those payments right away.” That goes for any direct debit, not just gyms: “The joy of the Australian consumer law is that it applies to all goods and…