Coronavirus has caused a home gym boom, sending companies scrambling

If you were feeling so inclined to exercise during the coronavirus confinement period, you might try to find weights online to order. Good luck.

The shutdown of commercial gyms has led to a run on home fitness equipment — kettlebells in particular due to their popularity for Crossfit and low footprint for those without much space. 

Across Walmart and Amazon, weights like dumbbells and kettlebells are out of stock, often with backorder dates pushed far into the unknown — or without a reorder date. 

Popular exercise equipment companies like Rogue Fitness and Rep Fitness have banners at the top of their websites advising customers of shipping delays that are measured in days, but could also be measured in weeks. (Rogue is mercifully down to 5-7 days for its in stock items.)

On eBay, kettlebells, which usually go for about a dollar per pound plus shipping, have been listed at double that — or more — making cast iron a sleeper pick for best coronavirus investment performance. Amazon is sold out, but its third-party sellers have been listing weight products at serious markups.

In New York City, things have come to the point in which Yahoo Finance anchor Zack Guzman has been in contact with a man who goes by “Bowflex Mike” who is selling two adjustable dumbbells for $260. (Far less than the $300 to $1,000 they’ve been going for on eBay.) Guzman said he’s doing a bulk order with two other colleagues to knock off the $100 shipping charge.

Behind the “out of stock” banners are companies furiously trying to fill the void caused by the shuttered gyms. Earlier this month, GQ christened it the Great Kettlebell Shortage of 2020, and reported that on March 13, the day Trump issued the state of emergency, Rep Fitness took in more orders in a day than it normally does in a month.

Since then, however, companies like Rogue have completely retooled their manufacturing and supply chain to deal with the massive demand — while dancing around COVID-19’s other challenges.

Dealing with crazy demand

The coronavirus pandemic started injecting chaos into the eastern end of supply chains destined for the American consumer since the outbreak began in China in 2019. And since social distancing became the norm throughout the country, the American end has been hit just as hard.

And thanks to closed gyms, this has caused this perfect storm of both a supply and demand crunch at the same time.

“Operationally, it is a massive challenge to increase U.S. manufacturing output,” said Rogue spokesperson Ashley Smith in an email.

The company appears to be answering the call, however. Rogue, based in Columbus, Ohio, has spun up its production in the U.S. to try to alleviate the three-week wait times in shipping in early April — as well as huge inventory squeezes.

Since the crisis started, Rogue has hired over 200 workers from its pre-COVID 600 and stopped taking weekends. The changes have allowed the company to double its capacity to 300,000 pounds of U.S. steel products in and out the door daily, the company said.

It’s not cheap to scale up during a public health crisis. The company is paying workers an additional $2 per hour, double overtime pay, adding quarterly bonuses, grocery gift cards, and feeding employees.

“This has allowed us to run all operations 24/7,” said Smith. Rogue is doing this with rigorous and transparent COVID precautions, reworking its departments and break areas for social distancing. 

The investments haven’t just been in people; the company has purchased a suite of massive lasers (tube and flat) as well as CNC machines and welding robots — all things to help scale up and get more pounds of cast iron and steel out the door.

“Every day we add capacity and get closer to our normal lead time,” a Rogue spokesperson told me.

Still, things are tight. Rogue said manufactured items usually ship the same day but now can take as long as 14 days. On Rogue’s website, all kettlebells (which retail for about $1.25 per pound) are sold out except for the extremely niche 124-, 150-, 175-, and 203-pound versions. By and large, the ratio between in-stock and out-of-stock is stark.

For bars, 75 products are out of stock and 14 are in stock. For bar plates, 11-pounds are in stock and 26 are out of stock. The demand is unusually high.

“We have experienced growth like this before; it is just a different scale at this point,” the company said.

Scaling up has also meant compromise. Rogue has employed five domestic foundries to produce kettlebells, but the costs to ship and finish mean that satisfying the demand to please customers is tantamount to not making money. 

“We are essentially selling those at cost or they would be very expensive just as they were before,” said Smith. 

One question that foundries have had is what happens when this is all over — will some of the U.S. production go back to China? There are no clear answers on that given the fact that for kettlebells at least, it’s hard to make any money making the giant steel spheres domestically. Rogue recognizes the challenges in increasing U.S. output but was very clear that the company has learned a lesson.

“If we ran out during this peak demand,” Smith said, “you can expect we will be making sure that doesn’t happen again in the future.”

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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