Skip to main content

Shelley-Anne Castro, director of The Barre Collective TO, demonstrates exercise that can be performed with the barre in her home exercise space.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Prime-time TV’s Dancing with the Stars has always taken a relatively unfettered view of what constitutes a star. But when the dance competition show named the ebullient Peloton instructor Cody Rigsby among its contestants this season, it was a reflection of just how popular such digital fitness services have become.

Not surprisingly, the at-home fitness category grew significantly during pandemic-related lockdowns, which temporarily closed the doors of fitness centres across North America, driving some out of business permanently.

Canadian retailer Lululemon Athletica Inc. is just one of the companies looking for a piece of this increasingly competitive field. On Thursday, the Vancouver-based company is rolling out its own at-home fitness device, Mirror, for demonstration in its Canadian stores. Online and in-store sales will begin next month, just ahead of the crucial holiday retail season. The device will be in 40 Canadian Lululemon locations by the end of the year.

Lululemon replaces Hudson’s Bay Company as official clothier of Team Canada at Olympics and Paralympics

Lululemon raises full-year forecast betting on strong athleisure demand

Mirror, which Lululemon acquired last year in a $500-million deal, is a mirror-like device that acts as a screen for displaying online fitness classes. It also has a camera users can turn on for feedback during livestreaming classes or personal training sessions with remote instructors. The device is already sold in more than 150 Lululemon stores in the United States, and the company indicated in June that it expects Mirror to generate US$250-million to US$275-million in sales this year.

Mirror is a mirror-like device that both acts as a screen to broadcast fitness classes, and has a camera users can turn on for feedback during live streaming classes. LululemonHandout

“We do believe that in the future we’ll have more of a hybrid [in-studio and at-home] workout approach,” said Celeste Burgoyne, president of the Americas and global guest innovation at Lululemon. “You’ll see us focus on getting our guests the right workout or experience for what they need in that moment.”

Lululemon faces a marketing challenge: building customer interest in Mirror – which goes for a base price of $1,895 in Canada, not including the $49 monthly subscription fee to access content on the device – in a very crowded market. The likes of Apple , Nike and Amazon have launched virtual fitness services, some of them tied to fitness trackers such as Amazon’s Halo. Earlier this year, Google closed its US$2.1-billion acquisition of Fitbit. And makers of more pricey equipment, such as NordicTrack, are tricking out their home treadmills and bikes with access to the kind of digital content that has fueled Peloton’s growth.

Peloton, which sells internet-connected bikes and treadmills, as well as an online fitness-class subscription service, grew its customer base during the pandemic. But more recently, it has cut the price of its least-expensive bike, and has faced pressure on its stock price amid investor concerns about competition, and about the possibility that the home-fitness craze could cool off. (Peloton also offers a stand-alone app subscription that provides access to classes for those who do not own one of its devices.)

Lululemon’s brick-and-mortar stores are a powerful marketing tool, because sales staff can explain Mirror’s services and show off the product in person. (There are also cross-marketing perks: All of the 15 instructors for Mirror’s online classes are Lululemon “ambassadors,” and wear the brand’s clothing in each class.)

There is evidence that the demand for online fitness may be bolstered by people whose fitness routines have permanently changed because of the pandemic. Out of 1,500 Canadians surveyed by Abacus Data in July, roughly one-fifth went to a fitness studio or gym at least once a week before the pandemic. Of those, 18 per cent said they plan to continue both in-person activities and digital workouts, such as streaming classes they can access from home. Another 18 per cent said they have converted, and plan to only use virtual services. Half said they intend to go back to working out in fitness facilities only. The rest said they have given up on their exercise routines.

“People tell us they do want to come back. But I see there always being an enhanced virtual component,” said Sara Hodson, president of the Fitness Industry Council of Canada, the trade association for fitness facility operators that commissioned the survey.

Shelley-Anne Castro has seen the shift first-hand. As an instructor at Toronto’s Barreworks fitness studio, during pandemic lockdowns she became a videographer, lighting designer and performer, carving out a space in her home to film workouts for the virtual subscription service the studio swiftly launched.

In May of this year, Barreworks’ owners decided to shut down for good. Almost immediately, Ms. Castro and some of her fellow instructors decided to launch a new service, the Toronto Barre Collective, which she now owns and runs. Customers can participate in live classes via Zoom, with cameras on or off depending on their comfort levels and desire for feedback. Class videos are also available on demand.

“It’s more personal than an Apple or a Peloton. Sure, there’s a rush of being in a class with 8,000 people in the world, but it’s also nice to be in a class of 20 people with an instructor that you know and trust,” Ms. Castro said. She believes some customers are drawn to exercise that does not require investment in costly equipment. “It’s a beautiful motivator, but it’s not accessible for everyone.”

California-based Mindbody, which created the software platform Ms. Castro’s team uses, has seen many of its fitness-studio clients launch similar digital offerings in the past year and a half.

“This is a seismic shift that is happening in our industry,” said Mindbody president and chief technology officer Sunil Rajasekar. Before the pandemic, the company’s product was a marketing, booking and business-management tool for in-person studios. When COVID-19 hit, Mindbody scrambled to build virtual-class capabilities in a matter of weeks.

For now, the Toronto Barre Collective is still getting started. To become profitable, Ms. Castro said, she knows she will need to offer a wider variety of classes, the way other services such as Peloton do. Her instructors are trained in a variety of disciplines, including yoga, meditation and strength training. She is hoping to eventually open a brick-and-mortar studio, but says the virtual classes will continue no matter what.

“The digital component is now a permanent fixture of the fitness industry,” she said.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.