With gym memberships down across the fitness industry, the giant 24 Hour Fitness chain is taking a new cost-cutting approach to identifying its gym members — fingerprints.
The 428-gym chain, which issued more than 1 million plastic membership cards and key ring IDs last year, is converting to a system that identifies members by scanning the individual ridges on fingertips.
The San Ramon, Calif., company is characterizing the move as a green initiative, but Wally Boyko, publisher of the National Fitness Trade Journal, says it's a new way for gyms to cut costs — and fraud — in a tough economy.
"Nothing has been done like this before, but it's a very different time right now for the industry, and what you're seeing is membership drop off, people not renewing or even canceling their contracts," Boyko said. "This system will save money on plastic."
Not that Boyko is comfortable with the idea.
"Me personally, I wouldn't use it. I don't want my gym having more information on me than they already do."
A spokesman for 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide Inc., Danny De La Rosa, declined to say how much the privately held company was spending on installing the new system, or how much it hoped to save.
Fingerprint readers have already been installed in nearly 200 of the firm's fitness centers, with the goal being that all of them will have the new system by the end of the year.
"No more cards, no more plastic," De La Rosa said. "There's a benefit to that environmentally and cost-wise, and it's actually a more secure system than the membership cards."
He characterized the boost in security as being a benefit to customers. "Cards can be lost or stolen," he said.
But Boyko, whose company also puts on the annual National Fitness Trade Show, said there had been problems at gyms with people sharing membership cards. The fingerprint scanners could cut that out.
He said it "keeps the gym from getting ripped off by having people working out there that shouldn't be."
Boyko is not alone in a dislike of the system for privacy reasons. Discontented customers have used Web forums and blogs to sound off against it, and filed grievances with privacy advocacy organizations.
"We've received complaints about these systems being tested in 24 Hour Fitness gyms going back as far as 2006," said Beth Givens, director of the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.
"Fingerprints come with a stigma. When you're arrested your fingerprints are taken. There is almost an association of criminal activity with it," Givens said.
"But a lot of people are very concerned about the Big Brother aspect of all this — that everything we do can be tracked online by companies that don't have our best interest at heart and even hacked or misused."
24 Hour Fitness members can opt out of the fingerprint system and instead show government-issued picture IDs when entering the centers. De La Rosa said only about 3% of patrons have chosen to do that in the gyms where the systems have been installed.
Members who do agree to go cardless have to submit to a digital scan that creates an ID number based on the ridges in the fingers.
"We aren't really storing fingerprints, just a number of points on a person's finger that are being captured," De La Rosa said.
After the initial procedure, members entering gyms not only have to scan their fingers but also type personalized 10-digit codes into keypads on the machines.
Mitch Digger, 24, an independent personal trainer who works out at a 24 Hour Fitness center in Hollywood, said he had no problem with the scanners.
"It's the future," Digger said. "We live in an impatient society and everybody wants things fast and now. So this system fits in with that mentality that we all seem to have."
Helena Chontos, a real estate agent who was also at the Hollywood center, said workout buffs should relax and get used to the new system.
"I'm from Canada, and fingerprint scanners have been in gyms over there for years," she said. "It's sort of normal for me, and I think it's really about time gyms in the U.S. catch up."
Times staff writer Tiffany Hsu contributed to this report.