It was the best of pelotimes, it was the worst of pelotimes.
If the graph of Peloton’s stock-price fluctuations were the blueprint for a new roller coaster, it would be a terrifying ride for anyone brave enough to strap in. The line undulates with disasters: Since the fitness-tech company went public in late 2019, it has weathered a virally bad holiday ad campaign, pandemic delivery delays so extensive that it bought up tons of pricey cargo-plane space, and a recall of one of its treadmills following dozens of injuries and the death of a child.
Between those precipitous drops, the company had a better pandemic than nearly all other businesses on the planet. With gyms closed, Peloton’s stock price skyrocketed alongside sales of its spin bikes and treadmills, increasing more than eightfold from March to December 2020. By August 2021, the company had 2.3 million users paying nearly $40 a month to take classes on its “connected fitness” products—more than quadruple the number it reported two years prior. But the highs and lows have continued apace: Peloton’s stock tanked in November after the company reported quarterly sales far below its own expectations and slashed annual-revenue projections. As more people return to gyms, new signups have slowed and existing members are taking fewer classes. The Wall Street Journal gave the phenomenon a name: Peloton fatigue. (Peloton declined to comment for this story.)
Since last spring, every up and down of the Peloton roller coaster has generated a volume of headlines that has felt at times disproportionate to the societal significance (such as it is) of a company that sells fancy exercise bikes. In part, that’s because Peloton is a quirky company whose cultish following inspires strong opinions, and whose existence has seeped further into mainstream pop culture—its handsome, exuberant director of cycling, Cody Rigsby, was a finalist on the most recent season of Dancing With the Stars. It doesn’t hurt that actual Peloton owners appear to be overrepresented in the ranks of national media. But the fascination with Peloton’s foibles is so durable, and apparently so widespread, that it suggests that something a little more complicated is afoot than a straightforward curiosity about the long-term profit potential of in-home spin classes. The question that people are trying to sort out about Peloton is, at its most basic level, the biggest unanswered question of the past year and a half: Are things ever getting back to normal again, or what?
In one sense, this is a practical question for Peloton—and Zoom, and DoorDash, and Amazon, and many others. They fell face-first into the ideal conditions for an extended windfall that they could not have predicted and that, may God have mercy on our souls, will not be replicated. With that comes some uncertainty: How much can what people did in the past year and a half really tell anyone about what they’ll do in the future?
You probably don’t personally care about the quality of Peloton’s sales data. I certainly do not. But lots of companies make decisions—on manufacturing, on inventory, on hiring—based on this kind of year-over-year information, and a lot of them have nearly two years of data that will, at best, be tricky to use effectively as life continues to change. At worst, the numbers are absolute trash. If you’ve been looking, the effects of this phenomenon have been visible for months. Back in the spring, when vaccines were becoming widely available and people were feeling optimistic about the summer, even the fastest fast-fashion retailers were caught flat-footed. The information they traditionally rely on to produce new styles was still showing them a big, flashing neon sign that said SWEATPANTS.
For companies such as Peloton, whose popularity soared based on the specific limitations of pandemic life, the question is how much they will figure into people’s lives going forward, assuming that people continue to feel comfortable going to gyms, offices, and restaurants. How much were their products and services convenient stopgaps, and how much does their success represent a more durable shift in how lots of people spend their money and conduct the day-to-day activities of their lives? For the businesses enjoying a post-vaccine resurgence, the problem is the other side of the same coin: Will everyone that left come back? How quickly? How many people should they hire, and how much of what kind of stuff should they have on hand? Their data aren’t so great, either. How do you know what next month’s potential horde of (finally) returning customers will want from you if you have little information on how the past year may have changed them?
But these practical questions, about Peloton or any other business, are not really why these ups and downs seem to nag at casual observers so much. In the grand scheme of human thought, some things are easier targets for contemplation than others. “Do a significant number of people really prefer to exercise at home?” is a simple one. “Is the life I took for granted gone for good, in some ways?” is a little trickier to put your arms around.
Isn’t that what we’re talking about here, in the end? Much of American life is mediated through consumer purchases, and following their ups and downs is how people take the temperature on all kinds of societal changes. Fluctuations in “consumer confidence” upend financial markets and spring leaks in presidential-approval ratings. Knowing what’s selling and who’s buying offers a window, however imperfect, into a lot of less concrete ideas. Maybe if people stop buying Pelotons, or stop using the ones they have, that means they’re doing the things they did before the pandemic—working out at the gym, playing on rec sports teams, going to spin classes in real life. Maybe that’s a measurable indicator that we’re headed in the right direction, or at least the familiar one.
People have been trying to guess how the pandemic would change American life since the moment the pandemic began, and headstones have been carved for lots of things that will very obviously survive—handshakes, restaurants, in-person office work, and, yes, gyms. This is what people do when faced with the kind of bottomless uncertainty we’ve all lived in for nearly two years—they look for the signal in the noise, the clues about what might come next, some objective indicators of how to form their subjective beliefs.
Spotting the limitations of this method is always pretty easy in hindsight. Most of our experiences are less meaningful in the broad sweep of history than they feel like they are while we’re enduring them, but in an information vacuum, any crumb of certainty feels like a feast. Knowing that doesn’t prevent us from making the same mistakes again, though. Last Friday, as news of the new Omicron variant spread around the world, Peloton’s stock ticked back up.