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The extremely profitable (and ethically murky) business of reselling dumbbells

Dumbbells are impossibly expensive right now, thanks in large part to resellers taking advantage of a shortage.

A large rack of dumbbells at Gold’s Gym Islip in New York
If you sold these dumbbells, you would be very rich.
Al Bello/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Humans’ fragile understanding of worth and employment has long been tested by comically effective get-rich-quick schemes — think rare Beanie Babies or the volatile world of cryptocurrency. Now there’s a “why didn’t I think of that?” business idea for the pandemic era: reselling dumbbells.

Literal, not figurative, dumbbells.

Dumbbells — cast iron molded to a specific shape, set to a specific weight, and created for the simple act of being picked up and put down — have become some of the most coveted items of 2020. Like cookware or cars or electronics, there’s a range of quality when it comes to dumbbells that might not be apparent at first glance. Some dumbbells are worth every penny. But on the resale market, on sites like eBay, Facebook Marketplace, and Craigslist, dumbbells are being sold for twice to sometimes six or seven times the amount they went for before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The markup and profits are the result of a dumbbell shortage combined with meteoric demand. But there’s something else happening: This new supply of ravenous consumers is largely uninformed about the market, and resellers are eager to take advantage of that perfect storm.

“And you know, of course, the million-dollar question is: Is this thing going to correct itself? And what happens when it does?” American Barbell CEO Phil Patti told me. “The bottom line is we don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

America has a dumbbell shortage and an excess of resellers

A CrossFitter lifts a dumbbell during a socially distanced workout class
Look at those dumbbells! This CrossFitter should probably sell them.
Johnny Louis/Getty Images

Understanding the lucrative dumbbell resale market means understanding the shortage. The pandemic resulted in gym shutdowns across the country in March. With their fitness plans in limbo, people started ordering weights from retailers, which burned through their inventory and placed orders that most likely went through China (according to my sources, the country accounts for 95 percent of cast-iron weights). At the same time, China’s winter and spring lockdowns gummed up the supply chain. Retailers’ stock remains sporadic, sometimes taking months to ship.

This shortage put resellers at an advantage.

“I never once considered selling everything that I own. I had everything that I wanted,” Brian Doyle, a former NCAA coach and home-gym enthusiast, told me. “Once I put it on paper, and I saw exactly how much money that the market was telling me that I could make off of my gym, that told me, ‘Go ahead, you’re gonna make a 3x return on your investment on this.’”

Doyle said he had been working on his home gym for five or six years before selling everything during the pandemic. He then used that money to repurchase a more expansive home gym. Putting Doyle’s flip into plain English, the weights and dumbbells he was looking at two years ago were going for less than $1 per pound, sometimes as low as 50 cents per pound. Those same weights now go for $2.50 to $3 (or even more) per pound on the resale market.

If you were to buy a 10-pound dumbbell at the 50-cents-per-pound steal Doyle found, it would cost $5. On the current resale market, that 10-pound weight could be $30 (if not more). That’s a 600 percent difference. Obtain and sell enough weights, or really anything at a 600 percent markup, and you’ve got an extremely profitable business model. Or one that could, if enforced, qualify as price gouging.

“I’m defending the secondhand market because price gouging is typically only enforceable in retail, not in secondhand sale,” Doyle said. “You know, the secondhand market is free game. It’s the wild, wild west.”

As Doyle points out, there isn’t a federal law against resellers marking up their prices. He saw it happen to the very dumbbells he sold.

“When I sold everything here, I sold my dumbbells at $1.20 a pound,” he told me. Later, “I saw four pairs of my dumbbells marked up for $2 a pound. They were listed online two days after I sold them. And so I see it happening immediately with the stuff that I sold. I sold it at what I thought was a very reasonable price.”

Reseller Lupe Barajas told me he makes roughly a 30 percent profit from the weights he’s been buying at retail. His strategy is to go directly to retail stores, ask when shipments come in, and then flip the weights that he buys.

“Big 5 [Sporting Goods] gets loads once a week, and Walmart is pretty much every day but varies,” Barajas said. “Usually workers will let me know when that is and I make sure I get there in the morning, when everything is stocked up.”

While Barajas started out selling on eBay, he learned that selling locally was a better option, since he could avoid shipping fees and eBay’s cut. I asked him what he would say to a buyer who says he and other resellers are price gouging.

“I think that should be motivation to producers of items that there is a shortage on,” he said. “It’s not just gym equipment — there’s tons of items people increase the price on. But some people like the convenience of knowing someone like myself has the item available and are fine paying a little more, versus going to stores and the store not having what they want and they’re just wasting their time.”

While writing this story, I received tips about more complex sourcing and selling techniques, from bots that crawl Amazon to sellers who have found that moving equipment was more lucrative than their current career. Those sellers declined to speak to me on the record, though I spoke with a few one-off resellers who had stories about selling adjustable dumbbells and even equipment like Nintendo’s Ring Fit Adventure video game for around double the price.

Earlier this year in March, a man from Tennessee hoarded 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer in an attempt to make a monster profit. His plan went awry when lawmakers like Gov. Andrew Cuomo took action against price gouging, and websites like Amazon followed suit and blocked bad actors.

That said, dumbbells and weights aren’t considered “essential” items during the pandemic the way sanitizer and other items were. There’s also no law or even Amazon directive that bars you from hypothetically purchasing dumbbells from a seller looking to make an exponential profit. The reverse is also true: There isn’t anything stopping sellers on Amazon or Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. And it’s worth noting that these extreme markups, while rare, are actually commonplace with items such as sneakers and watches.

The transactions, as simple as a click on Venmo, are often unregulated.

It’s not hard to find the resellers on sites such as eBay or Facebook Marketplace, the latter of which features multiple sellers offering dumbbells at $2 to $2.50 per pound. On the r/flipping subreddit, sellers share stories about how buyers’ offers for dumbbells have skyrocketed during the pandemic and strategize about whether gym reopenings will drive prices down.

Dumbbells have become a luxury.

No one needs them right now, but there’s a premium on having them because for the most part, how we work out still hasn’t returned to “normal.” Even in places where gyms are open, some people might not be comfortable working out with others amid the pandemic.

Retailers sell weights for a fair price with delays, but with dumbbells that allow you to work out right away, you run the risk of getting hosed. Doyle summed up the price dilemma: “How much is my time worth? How much is it worth to not wait two months to get what I want right now?”

The answer, it seems, is as much as a 600 percent markup.

How uninformed customers have driven up dumbbell prices

A hand holds a dumbbell in front of a television set
This dumbbell is a luxury.
Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images

For 42 years, American Barbell was a behind-the-scenes player and commercial manufacturer of, you guessed it, American barbells. It supplied everyone from Orange Theory to Planet Fitness, but when the pandemic struck, most of its business — $28.5 million of the $30 million it did in 2019 — shut down overnight.

As American Barbell’s Patti tells it, it was a crisis — for about a week.

As the CEO was plotting his next move, one of his partners came to him. “He said, ‘We have $4 million in internet orders,’” Patti told me. “In 2019 we did about $1 million to $1.5 million in total [online]. Now we had $4 million all at once.”

In the before times, gyms such as Gold’s or Equinox or Planet Fitness edited and picked out weights for their customers. According to Patti, these customers were now ready to spend money without having a clue what to buy. And as a result, resellers and new retailers looking to cash in on booming demand are getting away with selling or reselling poor-quality products at astronomical prices.

Take hexagonal-shaped dumbbells, for example.

“Hex bells are very, very popular for the home market. They’ve been around forever,” Patti explained. “But you know, you can buy one that’s recycled rubber that smells like old car tires, and it’ll smell up a room and, you know, gag people. That’s the majority of what people sell.” (Rubber and urethane-coated dumbbells are popular because they protect both the equipment and surfaces like your floor.)

Patti is very clear that his products aren’t cheap — he said they signify premium, top-shelf strength-training products. His rubber hex bells are going for the high end of retail value ($1.75 to $2.25 per pound), but he argues that you’re paying for quality and natural, non-stinky rubber that won’t induce your gag reflex.

The thought being that if you’re already paying a premium, above-market price for a product, you might as well go with a premium product. Further, Patti said the influx of new and resold product could result in serious safety issues, such as equipment falling apart or something disastrous, like an Olympic bar snapping.

“We realize that, boy, the public needs a little bit of education because to us it’s a tremendous disservice to watch all these people that are making big money,” Patti told me. “They don’t deserve it. They haven’t put in any dues. They’re just capitalizing on, you know, the unknowing customer, and to me, I take that extremely personal.”

Doyle, the home-gym expert, echoed what Patti said about education. He said he was at an advantage because he’d been building and researching his home gym for years, as well as coaching college athletes. He knew what to look for and the price points to seek out.

“Without market knowledge, it’s kind of like shooting a dart with your eyes closed trying to find the right price,” Doyle said.

Patti said he doesn’t see the market shifting back to gyms anytime soon or in the capacity it once was, at least not until a vaccine is created. He doesn’t blame people for not wanting to be in a tight space working out with others. He also doesn’t blame consumers for wanting to bring those workouts home — he just wants them to be more educated.

“Don’t be afraid to ask the seller tons of questions,” Patti told me. “If you’re buying something very inferior and you’re paying a Ferrari price, that’s a problem.”

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