Jackie Skelly Fitness: Club Membership Rip-off: Popular Complaints

Irish Mail on Sunday

23 August, 2009, by Michael O’Farrell, Investigative Correspondant

HOW JACKIE SKELLY GYMS PUT THE CASH SQUEEZE ON CUSTOMERS

We Expose How Sales Staff Mislead, Bully And Even Threaten You Into Signing penal 12-Month Contracts That Just Keep Rolling

IT IS the country’s best- known gym chain, with 10 well-publicised branches nationwide and a slick publicity drive promising the ultimate fitness experience.

Claiming to be the longest-established fitness group in Ireland, Jackie Skelly Fitness also has healthy financial figures to match.

Annual turnover is in excess of €16m, with profits of more than €2m. But today, the Irish Mail on Sunday can reveal how the company’s fitness centres use disreputable sales tactics to browbeat new applicants into signing up and existing ones into not leaving.

An MoS investigation, carried out in nine of the 10 Jackie Skelly gyms, has revealed that sales staff routinely neglect to inform prospective members that they are signing up to a 12-month rolling contract that will automatically renew.

Eager salesmen and women also neglected to inform our undercover reporter that the only way of stopping the contract is to apply in writing 60 days in advance, thereby paying a two month quitting fee.

On three occasions, Jackie Skelly membership consultants also refused point blank to allow a reporter take a contract away to read the fine print before signing.

And in one shocking case, they followed up with a call threatening to begin withdrawing money from a reporter’s account, even though he hadn’t signed the contract yet.

Furthermore, internal documentation and letters obtained by the MoS seem to reveal a persistent pattern over a number of years in which members who try to leave, fall ill or lose their job, are threatened with debt collectors.

The financial motivation behind such aggressive practices is revealed in another internal document seen by the MoS.

The document details the €1m plus in saved earnings if just 5pc of the 5,000 or so members who leave each year are convinced to keep paying. Complaints of sharp sales practices against the company reached a peak last year, resulting in a new, more consumer- friendly contract being agreed with the National Consumer Agency.

There are even those who complain that the firm has continued taking payments from customers’ bank accounts even after they have cancelled payments with their bank. This claim is supported by Jackie Skelly letters seen by the MoS and sent to customers who had instructed their bank not to pay.

To investigate such allegations, the MoS visited nine out of 10 company gyms on Wednesday between 10am and 10pm, posing as a potential customer.

Each time the MoS visited a Jackie Skelly gym this week in Navan, Drogheda, Ashbourne, Greystones, Santry, Park West, Ballsbridge, Rathfarnham and Dublin’s city centre we were greeted by the friendliest of welcomes and with a special offer that was just about to close if we didn’t sign up straight away.

‘Special offer would end if we didn’t sign on spot’

In some branches, the ‘special offer’ was ending tomorrow, in others at the end of the month, and others by the weekend. Prices ranged from €49 to €59 per month plus a €29 administration fee.

We did meet members of Jackie Skelly’s staff who were up-front. In Ashbourne, Co. Meath, for example, a reporter was voluntarily informed of all the membership conditions and given a copy of the contract to take away for consideration.

In other locations, such as Navan and Drogheda, membership consultants were straightforward when asked about conditions but did not allow reporters time to consider the small print or leave the building with a contract to read over at home.

‘Before I sign and hand over the bank details, do you mind if I have a think about it and maybe pop this in in the morning?’ the reporter asked.

‘I can’t actually,’ the Navan sales person responded. ‘But what we can do is: if you fill out the form here and you want to pay over the phone later on, you can. Would that be okay?’ It was the same in Greystones. ‘I actually can’t have you take this,’ the receptionist said when the reporter paused before signing the contract and asked for a copy to read at home. The receptionist didn’t mention any conditions when asked about the 12- month contract and was ready to process payment by credit card immediately.

In general, staff who were not directly asked about conditions did not mention any before applying a great deal of pressure to close the sale without allowing contracts to be read. For example, in the Jackie Skelly gym in Rathfarnham’s Nut- grove retail park, the salesman gave a quick tour before producing the contract.

‘At the moment we have got a fantastic rate of €49 a month or about €10.80 a week. If you are training two or three times a week, it’s very good value for money.’

Asked what was required to sign up, he simply produced a contract without indicating any of the small print on the back. ‘You basically pay €78, give your bank details, your name, address and phone number, and that’s it. That’s it. Name, address and mobile.’ He then produced the direct debit instruction before the contract had even been signed and proceeded to arrange payment.

‘Okay, I’ll go up to process the payment and get your swipe card immediately and, if you want to book in a trainer at your convenience, you can give us a call,’ he said.

‘Is there anything else I need to do?’ the reporter asked.

‘No,’ he replied. ‘We can just go to reception and pay.’

‘I didn’t sign this one though,’ the reporter responded, pointing to the yellow contract which I had completed but not signed.

It was only at this point, having already tried to take payment that he referred to the conditions.

‘Okay, you can flip it over and read the back,’ he said. ‘It runs for 12 months. If you want to. finish it, just give us two months’ notice. If you want to postpone if you are going away on holiday, we can suspend it. If you want to transfer it to someone else, you can pay and transfer it. That’s basically it, it’s just standard.’ At this point, the reporter left, only to receive a loosely veiled phone threat from the company the following morning.

You signed up with us in Jackie Skelly’s yesterday and I’m just following up. We have your bank details here,’ the friendly voice indicated.

‘I didn’t actually sign the contract yet. I wanted some time to think,’ the reporter replied. ‘Well we have your bank details, we can do the rest on the phone now the eager sales pitch continued. Then, when the reporter failed to commit to an appointment, the female sales agent threatened to begin taking payments anyway.

‘It would be best as soon as you could really because otherwise the direct debit will be sent through,’ she said. In Ballsbridge, the salesman failed to mention any conditions.

‘I’ll tell you what,’ the reporter hesitated just before signing. ‘Before I sign and hand over the bank details, do you mind if I have a think about it and maybe pop this in in the morning?

‘I can’t have you take this contract’

‘Well, what we could do is we could sign this up here,’ he replied. ‘And you could bring that in in the morning. There’s no problem with that.’

‘So sign the contract now and bring in the bank details tomorrow?’ the reporter asked. ‘Yeah. Or I’ll give you a call and we could even do that over the phone tomorrow. This can be done over the phone,’ he pushed. ‘I’m more worried about signing the contract. I want to have a look at what’s involved in the contract. Can I take it away and have a look at it and bring it back?’ the reporter asked.

Only at this point did he explain any conditions, skipping over the controversial one about two months’ notice of quitting being required without explaining it.

‘It’s really straightforward. That’s this bit and these are the conditions there on the back. It’s a 12-month contract and if you want to break the contract — as you can’t do with Vodafone or people like that — you can pay a slight nominal fee to come out of it.’

The reporter was not given a copy to bring home and consider and received a call the following day seeking to close the sale over the phone or fix an appointment to come in again.

Such practices would not come as any surprise to one particularly aggrieved former customer who calls himself Jacques de St-Ferriol.

Mr de St-Ferriol has even gone as far as setting up a up a heavy-hitting anti- Jackie Skelly website.

The site, www.jackieskellymembership.com, catalogues a litany of allegations against the company and includes a series of extraordinary letters with Jackie Skelly’s lawyers, who have tried to close down the damning web pages.

The accountant and businessman told the MoS from New York, where he is on business: ‘I have offered to face them in any common law jurisdiction in the world but I can’t get a response.’

Like other former customers, Mr de St-Ferriol felt he had been manoeuvred into signing a contract that committed him to roll over payments he had not been informed of.

He said: ‘When I started complaining, they weren’t interested in the complaint. They just had a procedure and insisted that you had signed a contract and were going to be held to it.’ The website has attracted emails from other former customers who make similar allegations, including money being taken from bank accounts through direct debits without permission.

This claim is supported by Jackie Skelly letters seen by the MoS. ‘This is notification to let you know that as from now and on a monthly basis we will be deducting €61 from your credit/laser card as per the terms and conditions of your membership contract,’ one letter reads.

‘We have tried to contact you by both phone and by post on numerous occasions re your instruction cancelled at the bank, but to date there has been no response, therefore we are taking this action,’ it adds.

Documents seen by the MoS indicate that up to 20 new cases a month were being forwarded for debt collection by one of the 10 Jackie Skelly clubs at one point. Even those claiming to be sick appear to be pursued for arrears.

‘We will undertake an internal investigation’

One of the many letters obtained by the MoS reads as follows: ‘When I spoke to you last week, you said that you could not use the facilities as you were under investigation by your doctor for arthritis.

‘As I explained before, the contract is non-cancellable within the first 12 months and it is a legal contract. If the contract is not upheld I have no choice but to pass this on to the debt collection agency at the end of the month.’ Responding to this week’s investigation, Karen Fallon, the general manager of Jackie Skelly Fitness, admitted that the practices uncovered by the MoS were unacceptable.

‘Obviously, I’m appalled,’ she said. ‘You have the right to read a contract. Obviously it’s not standard practice not to let people read the contract and we have to allow them time to read it.’ Miss Fallon denied that management pressurised or encouraged employees to engage in sharp selling practices.

‘No they are not trained to not tell people about the terms and conditions. ‘We will undertake an internal investigation. They won’t be losing their jobs but we will follow up on it.’

michael.ofarrell@mailonsunday.ie