Peloton Thrived in the Pandemic. Now What?
As demand for the fitness brand’s famous bikes and treadmills peters out, its dedicated user base might be its saving grace
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Late last year, the bottom fell out for Peloton. As life crept back to normal after almost two years of pandemic restrictions, demand for the company’s trademark exercise bike faltered, bringing the brand’s stock down with it. Activist investor Blackwells Capital, which owns a 5 percent stake in the company, loudly advocated for a sale, floating a range of big-name tech companies as potential buyers. Reports that the company had halted manufacturing and slashed its sales goals began to circulate, a dark cloud that was swiftly followed by news that its founder, John Foley, was stepping down as CEO and the company was laying off 2,800 employees.
Barry McCarthy, the former CFO of Spotify, who was installed as Foley’s replacement, has rejected acquisition talk, making it clear that Peloton plans on going it alone, says Simeon Siegel, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets. Perhaps more importantly, Foley doesn’t want to sell. And while he may no longer be CEO, he’s taken on the role of executive chairman and continues to effectively control the company. (Foley’s dual-class stock structure means that, even if he doesn’t own a majority of shares, he has a majority of votes.) “Unless John wants to sell, this company isn’t going to sell,” says Dan Primack, a business editor at Axios and the author of the Pro Rata newsletter.
That doesn’t mean someone with deep pockets—hello, Amazon or Apple—couldn’t sweep in with an offer too good to refuse. But this hypothetical company would have to pay top dollar. According to Siegel, that’s likely not an enticing prospect, in part because Peloton, with its stunted growth projections, isn’t promising enough to be an attractive acquisition target.
Although many headlines have speculated on how Peloton will end, there’s one potential salvation from this doom and gloom: the company’s dedicated user base. Peloton rose to prominence by creating an excellent customer experience through the breadth and personalization of its fitness classes, a feature that hasn’t disappeared. As it stands, its churn rate remains “extraordinarily low, below 1 percent of people,” Primack says. Part of this is possibly due to the fact that customers who can afford to pay thousands of dollars for a bike or treadmill can afford the additional $39 a month subscription fee; plus, investing in something that expensive is a good incentive not to throw in the towel, at least for the first couple years. But it also speaks to the company’s ability to create engaging content that users can customize and truly connect with.
After all, before Peloton was a cautionary tale, it was a Silicon Valley darling that found success through its ambition and mutability, both in the community it has created and its shifting brand identity. Started as an exercise company in 2012, Peloton’s aspirations quickly expanded to the point where it began marketing itself not as a fitness juggernaut but as a media brand and a lifestyle. Its charismatic star instructors became social media influencers with millions of followers each, and the brand entered the pop culture lexicon before COVID hit. Growth (and brand awareness) soared: from September 2019 to the same month a year later, Peloton bike and treadmill subscriptions rose from 563,000 to 1.3 million. In response, the company spent heavily on expanding its manufacturing capacity, betting that the increased demand would last. As the pandemic progressed, however, this hockey-stick trajectory faltered: in September 2021, Peloton had 2.5 million members, but growth noticeably slowed in early 2022, sending its stock spiraling. (After quadrupling in 2020, Peloton’s share price has fallen almost 80 percent in the past 12 months.)
For the company’s most dedicated users, this downturn has been distressing. At least that’s how it’s felt for Alison Smoker, 38, a mother of three in Atlanta who purchased a Peloton bike in December 2019. Despite its high price (bikes start at $1,495) and the cost of a monthly subscription, the change made financial sense to Smoker, who’d previously shelled out $25 to $30 a pop for SoulCycle and FlyWheel classes.
Smoker has since become a Peloton convert; she appreciates being able to work in sessions around her schedule, and its deep library of classes. Like so many users, she’s developed parasocial relationships with her favorite instructors, who she follows on social media, tracking major milestones like births, weddings, and, more recently, appearances on Dancing with the Stars and the launch of Adidas-sponsored clothing lines. “It sounds like I’m friends with these people,” she says, laughing. That is very much by design. Peloton’s workouts are expertly infused with instructors’ backstories, personalities, and unique energies. When Smoker wants to “laugh through something,” she takes a class with Cody Rigsby; when she feels like dancing, it’s cardio with Ally Love; if it’s inspiration she’s after, “Robin [Arzon] is my go-to every time.”
Smoker has become such a fan of Peloton that she regularly invites girlfriends over to try out the bike, eager to convince them to get one and join her for live workouts. But with the reopening of gyms and fitness classes, it’s an increasingly difficult sell. A sale of the company makes her nervous—“I’m not a big fan of Amazon,” she says—and she doesn’t want the unique feel and vibe of the classes to change.
Primack says the company hasn’t done well in anticipating this changing supply and demand: it bet big that a pandemic-induced spike in orders was the new normal rather than a temporary feature of an unprecedented virus. “It would be interesting to see what Peloton would be like today had there not been a pandemic and they had been able to continue growing on a gradual upward trend,” he says.
As the demand for Peloton continues to taper off, a sustainable future hinges on the company’s ability to accept that its target audience may not be as large as it once thought, says Siegel. The logical next step, then, becomes focusing on core customers like Smoker who would likely pay more for a subscription, particularly one with additional features, rather than chasing significantly more users by lowering prices. Peloton has expanded its offerings in the past—it launched cardio dance classes in 2020, rolled out boxing classes late last year, and just introduced a series of game-inspired workouts—and there’s been talk of a branded rowing machine. For its part, Peloton believes its treadmills represent a long-term growth opportunity; it’s not difficult to imagine hardcore loyalists purchasing multiple machines and building out an exclusively branded Peloton at-home gym. While much of the high-end, connected fitness market has been saturated, there’s still room to expand, Primack says, just not at the rate it was growing.
A renewed focus on core customers could also mean modifying its membership tiers. Erika K., a 31-year-old project manager who lives in New Jersey, pays $12.99 for a digital-only subscription, which includes virtually all of Peloton’s content. Her relationship with the brand is far more casual than Smoker’s: she downloaded the app a few months ago after learning her insurance covered the membership cost and has been using it three or four times a week ever since. Like Smoker, she appreciates the breadth of content, the ability to fit classes into her schedule, and the quality of instructors. Unlike Smoker, she doesn’t follow any instructor on social media and isn’t a brand loyalist. If the app suddenly cost her, she’d ditch it: in her opinion, there are too many free, similar apps to justify spending money on another one.
Offering users like Erika Peloton’s library of content, or “crown jewel,” without any expectation they’ll buy a bike and opt in to a more expensive membership is not a money-making strategy, Siegel says. What’s more, all-access members who pay far more for the same digital content could begin to question the dynamic, particularly as the company continues to beef up its off-bike offerings. Going forward, Siegel says it might make sense to offer digital subscribers an ad-supported option or less class variety to differentiate between the two tiers and encourage members to upgrade, although it might mean Peloton could lose users like Erika and see overall user numbers decrease.
Going this route would require a clear understanding from executives of the limits of Peloton’s user base, Siegel says. Despite a few indicators, including shutting down a domestic warehouse, and subsequent layoffs, he’s skeptical that management is committed to a more circumscribed long-term vision, particularly while Foley remains in the rider’s seat.
But if Peloton can dial back its ambitions, rein in spending, and eventually stabilize its share price, there are millions of active users like Smoker still ready to regularly interact with the brand. Primack points to the many communities on social media that have sprung up around instructors or different workouts. “These are really dedicated groups of people, and they aren’t small,” he says. Every Saturday, Primack does a live hourlong Peloton run, and every Saturday he’s joined by thousands of other users. “It can’t be that everyone happens to have 10 AM ET as the most ideal time for them to run on a treadmill,” he says. “They want to feel that sense of community.” The company has done a consistently good job building and maintaining this social, communal fitness experience that motivates users to keep showing up. There’s a possible future in which “the customer experience doesn’t change for the people who have been having a great experience,” Siegel says.
Smoker really hopes that’s the case. By this point, Peloton is part of her weekly routine; its instructors give her a sense of connection and, during the darkest days of the pandemic, its outdoor workouts offered a healthy dose of much-needed alone time. To this day, the brand’s consistently motivating classes, combined with their flexibility, remain the biggest draw for her. Giving it up would be a significant loss. “I can do this on my schedule—it’s motivated me to be healthier than I was before,” she says.