Before any preliminary qualitative research was carried out for the study at hand, the researchers stated the basic research question and brainstormed some research objectives, which were subsequently summarised in a first draft of the conceptual diagram. Afterwards, relevant secondary literature, such as journal articles about similar research topics and industry information, was reviewed in order to clarify and refine the research objectives and to specify the correct methodology (Polonsky & Waller, 2005, p. 85). The findings and methodology of the identified key literature provided essential information and served as a basis for the current research study.
However, as other researchers have previously collected secondary data for some other purpose, it is necessary to assess the accuracy and relevance of these data to the current project (e.g. the data source, purpose of the study, data collection method, main findings, how current is the research and is it consistent with other information, etc.) (McDaniel & Gates 2007, pp. 94-95). Some secondary data was not relevant or applicable to the current research problem, because the findings were outdated and reporting units, measurement units and class definitions did not match (Tull & Hawkins 1993, pp. 103-104).
It follows that qualitative research, such as focus groups, individual depth interviews and projective techniques (Polonsky & Waller, 2005, p. 84), had to be undertaken for this study in order to get quick and economical preliminary insights into the special demands and desires of female fitness centre customers, aged between 20 and 40 years, in Perth. As there is no general rule for deciding how many group discussions or individual interviews are needed to cover a subject (Hague, Hague & Morgan 2004, p. 54), the researchers discussed the matter with regard to the completion of the conceptual diagram and decided to conduct two focus groups, two expert interviews and three individual depth interviews.
1. Focus Groups Focus groups are small in-depth discussion groups guided by an objective moderator on a given topic. They typically consist of 6-10 people who are screened on certain predetermined characteristics (Arnould & Epp 2006, p. 63) to ensure that they have a certain degree of homogeneity and fulfil specific requirements (Hague, Hague & Morgan 2004, pp. 48-49). Advantages of the focus group technique include the interactive dialogue and spontaneous interplay among participants.
Respondents talk at length and in detail about a topic (Hair, Bush & Ortinau 2003, 221) and a response from one individual may become a stimulus for another person (McDaniel & Gates 2007, p. 130), stimulating new ideas and thoughts similar to a brainstorming effect (Hague 2002, p. 63). Individuals tend to feel less pressured to make up answers and have the opportunity to expand and refine their opinions in the interaction with others (Tull & Hawkins 1993, pp. 450-51). Researchers should list their information requirements in advance and incorporate them into a well-planned discussion guide. This guide is mainly based on the research objectives and outlines the questions asked during a session (McDaniel & Gates 2007, p. 137); therefore, it can also serve as a checklist to ensure that all salient variables have been covered.
The two focus groups conducted for this study were led by one of the researchers according to a pre-planned discussion guide, while two other group members served as secretaries and took rough notes of the participants’ comments during the discussion. The participants had to match the target group selection criteria (female, aged between 20 and 40 years and current or ex fitness centre member) and were mainly recruited from researchers’ friends and work colleagues. Both focus groups consisted of seven women within the target group and took place in the researchers’ workplaces outside office hours in comfortable venues, which were conducive to spontaneous and unrestricted dialogue among the group members. The average length of the group discussions was 60 minutes.
The employed discussion guide (see Appendix 8.2.) consisted of nine questions, covering the proposed objectives of this study. The conducted focus groups helped to learn more about the characteristics and services that are important to and the benefits sought by female gymnasium members. Many similar themes emerged in both sessions, which largely echoed the findings of the previously undertaken secondary research.
In Focus Group 1, it was noted that there was a lot of energy in the room when discussing the importance of friendly staff as well as clean and working showers with the availability of hairdryers. This discussion group also raised some issues that had not been identified so far, including an easy to complete membership form and easy to understand packages as well as the ability to join a gym and complete a membership form online.
Similar to the first group, Focus Group 2 discussed at length the need for clean facilities, a wide range of exercise classes available and helpful and friendly staff members. However, they also emphasised the importance of privacy while exercising. Only two women in that group, aged in their twenties, mentioned that they visit their fitness centre for socialising purposes. Moreover, the cost of membership generated a great deal of discussion with women expressing a desire to pay per session with benefits for regular use rather than committing to lengthy memberships. In summary, the focus groups elicited a broad spectrum of the target groups’ views, feelings and attitudes towards fitness centres as well as their preferred or desired characteristics and services.
1. Expert Interviews
Expert interviews or experience surveys are another exploratory technique used to informally gather opinions and insights from people, who are considered to be knowledgeable on a specific research topic (Hair, Bush & Ortinau 2003, p. 215). For this research study, different group members conducted two expert interviews with fitness centre employees, who provided essential information about the specific needs and wants of female gym members from an experienced managerial perspective. The interviewees were a male manager of a corporate gymnasium with more than ten years experience in the WA fitness sector and a female personal trainer at a city-based fitness centre, who has been working in the industry for about five years.
Both experts highlighted the importance of friendly, approachable and knowledgeable staff as key issues for clients, believing that it was extremely important that trainers were patient and genuinely interested in their members’ health. The male manager admitted that these are critical areas, in which his gyms have received complaints in the past. Moreover, the provision of hygienic, clean facilities and well-maintained equipment and showers featured highly in both expert interviews. Other factors proposed included the importance of drinking water fountains, clean towels and private changing rooms.
The female personal trainer also mentioned the availability and adequate capacity of childcare facilities as service desired by female customers. In her opinion, women are often pushed for time and therefore value convenience and a fitness centre that is social and “a part of the community” they live in. Finally, both experts acknowledged the value of an extensive range of regular fitness classes, including step aerobics, body pump and weights. In addition, many women today are interested in yoga and pilates classes, which should ideally be included in the price of the membership, according to the corporate fitness centre manager.
1. Individual Depth Interviews Individual depth interviews are relatively unstructured and undisguised one-on-ones, carried out face-to-face in a rather conversational manner. In contrast to descriptive research interviewing, there is no consistent line of questioning in an individual depth interview (Stevens et al. 1997, p. 56) and the direction is generally guided by the responses of the interviewee (McDaniel & Gates 2007, p. 149).
Questions are open-ended and nondirective to maximise the opportunity for respondents to express their own thoughts and feelings (Arnould & Epp 2006, p. 58). The interviewer can probe answers by asking “can you tell me more?” or “would you elaborate on that, please?” and bases further questions on previous replies. It is important that the interviewer carefully listens in order to understand and properly interpret the answers given by the respondent (Hague 2002, p. 66). Depth interviews are a frequently used exploratory research method, as they increase the understanding of the issues faced by respondents and can reveal practices that were previously only assumed in the conceptual diagram.
For the research study at hand, three individual depth interviews were conducted with females in the specified target group. Although a predetermined questioning sequence is not required, the focus group guide was used as a basis and the interviews therefore flowed in the form of a guided conversation with recurring themes. Respondents again put forward cleanliness, friendly and approachable staff and the availability of shower cubicles with private changing areas as key issues. The expected services included personal training, child-care facilities and the opportunity to buy breakfast after early morning workouts.
Projective techniques, such as word association tests or sentence completion tests, were incorporated into both focus group discussions and individual interviews. They are designed to penetrate the respondents’ defence mechanisms and consequently obtain more information about their true feelings, attitudes or motivations, which they may not have divulged in a direct question (McDaniel & Gates 2007, p. 152).
In word association tests, respondents are read or given a pre-selected set of words and asked to respond with the first word or thought that comes to their mind (Hair, Bush & Ortinau 2003, p. 216 and Tull & Hawkins 1993, pp. 452). Researchers then look for hidden meanings and associations between the responses and the original word being tested. Important keys to understand the underlying motives towards the subject are the response itself, the response time and the frequency of the response among the respondents (Stevens et al. 1997, p. 59).