With a blue ocean strategic move that reconstructed boundaries between traditional health clubs and home exercise programs, Curves, the Texas-based women’s fitness company, grew like wildfire after it started franchising in 1995.
What’s more, this growth was triggered almost entirely through word of mouth and buddy referrals. Yet at its inception, Curves was seen as entering an oversaturated market gearing its offering to customers that would not want it, and making its offering significantly blander than the competition’s. In reality, however, Curves exploded demand in the U.S. fitness industry, unlocking a huge untapped market, a veritable blue ocean of women struggling and failing to keep in shape through sound fitness. Curves built on the decisive advantages of two strategic groups in the U.S. fitness industry – traditional health clubs and home exercise programs – and eliminated or reduced everything else.
At the one extreme, the U.S. fitness industry was awash with traditional health clubs that catered to both men and women, offering a full range of exercise and sporting options, usually in upscale urban locations. Their trendy facilities were designed to attract the high-end health club set with investment costs for a traditional full-service health club then running from $500,000 to more than $1 million, depending on the city center location.
At the other extreme was the strategic group of home exercise programs, such as exercise videos, books, and magazines. These were a small fraction of the cost, were used at home, and generally required little or no exercise equipment. Instruction was minimal, being confined to the star of the exercise video or book and magazine explanations and illustrations.
The question Curves focused on: What made women either trade up or down between traditional health clubs and home exercise programs? Most women don’t trade up to health clubs for the profusion of special machines, juice bars, locker rooms with sauna, pool, and the chance to meet men. As for time, few women can afford to spend one to two hours at a health club several times a week. For the mass of woman, the city center locations also present traffic challenges, something that increases stress and discourages going to the gym.
It turns out that most women trade up to health clubs for one principle reason. When they are at home it’s too easy to find an excuse for not working out. Conversely, women who use home exercise programs do so primarily for the time saving, lower costs, and privacy.
Curves built its blue ocean by drawing on the distinctive strengths of these two strategic groups, eliminating and reducing everything else.
The experience of a Curves club was entirely different from that in a typical health club. The member entered the exercise room where the machines (typically about ten) were arranged not in rows facing a television as in the health club, but in a circle to facilitate interchange amongst members, making the experience fun. The Quickfit training system used hydraulic exercise machines, which need no adjusting and were safe, simple to use, and nonthreatening. While exercising, members could talk and support one another, and the social, nonjudgmental atmosphere was totally different from that of a typical health club. There were few if any mirrors on the wall, and there were no men staring at you. The result of reducing and focusing service on the essentials was that prices fell to a fraction of the cost of a traditional health club, opening the market to the broad mass of women. Curves’ tagline could have been “for the price of a cup of coffee a day you can obtain the gift of health through proper exercise.”
Curves offered distinctive value at a lower cost. Start-up investments were significantly lower for Curves and so were variable costs because of the wide range of factors the company eliminated and reduced. The result was that Curves did not compete directly with other health and exercise concepts; it created new demand. Today, twenty years out, it has nearly ten thousand clubs worldwide serving more than four million members. Despite bumps along the way, it has become the largest women’s fitness franchise in the world.
Could you create a blue ocean of new market space as Curves did by applying path two of blue ocean strategy’s six path’s framework?