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Weight Watchers and the End of Dieting

What's killing the 54-year-old weight loss giant?

Summer Fridays in New York can be hectic, with seemingly everyone trying to finish up their work and head out of the city before the weekend officially starts. But despite the inevitable emptying out of Manhattan, the Midtown location of Weight Watchers is humming. Off Broadway, down several flights of stairs, a few dozen members are eager to attend their scheduled meetings and discuss the week's challenges and accomplishments.


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The entrance to the space is filled with shelves of Weight Watchers products — branded salad containers, serving spoons, and electronic scales; single-serving packs of cookies, brownies, and oatmeal mix. A few members have staked their claim on the bright green chairs set up in a semi-circle for their group session.

The 11 a.m. meeting is mostly made up of older women, all chatting boisterously with one another. The 12:15 has a more generous range of ages, and the mood is far more emotional. The group cheers for Meghan, who just hit her weight loss goal and is becoming a Weight Watchers lifetime member. They cry for Jaclyn, who is going through a brutal breakup and didn't eat for 72 hours before binging on three slices of pizza. They smile in admiration for Annie, who shares that, after the previous week's discussion about turning body shame into strength, she went biking in shorts without throwing a skirt over them to hide her thighs.

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"So many of us struggle with the identity piece because we carry around images of who we used to be," says Maggie, the group's leader and a certified Weight Watchers coach, pointing to a poster that outlines the different paths to change. "They might even be images other people implanted in our heads, but for many of us, they become who we are and we never go back and question those truths. But that's where the power comes in: you can choose who you want to be."

"The easy parts of losing weight are external. The real work is internal," she continues, the group nodding along. "Eventually though, the two gaps will be bridged and you will honestly believe over time that you can do this. You will build your confidence to that point."

You can feel the sense of empowerment in the room; you can imagine it will stay with members long after the meeting has ended. It's easy to see how the first Weight Watchers gathering — held in the basement of company founder Jean Nidetch's Queens apartment building in 1961 with a group of friends — spawned such a following. But things at Weight Watchers are not the way they used to be, empty green chairs at each meeting serving as subtle reminders.


Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch poses for before and after portraits, 1965. Photo: Getty Images

The original Weight Watchers diet consisted of a meal plan in which only specific foods listed in company booklets were allowed. It relied on moderate consumption of fish and eggs, with poultry, liver, fruit, and vegetables sprinkled in; pizza, pork, salad dressing, cake, candy, ice cream, and alcohol were forbidden. In order to get these booklets, you had to become a paying Weight Watchers member. A membership cost $2 a week in 1963 (when the first public meeting was held), but today there's a minimum monthly fee of $19.95, as well as more costly options that include meetings and personal coaching.

In 1997, a point system was instituted and the company enjoyed a renaissance. This new system awarded foods point values based off of the number of calories they contained, and members were allotted a specific amount of points they could consume based on their weight and goals. This proved immensely popular, so much so that Applebee's, Olive Garden, and Chili's all created special Weight Watchers menus and grocery items like Boca veggie burgers, Jolly Time popcorn, and Healthy Choice soup started to list Weight Watchers point values on their packaging.

"It was a program with real food, and that resonated with people who didn't like the Jenny Craig model," explains Carol Koprowski, a dietician and professor at the University of Southern California, referencing Jenny Craig's prepackaged meals. "It fit with the family lifestyle, where you have the freedom to eat out with family and friends and use your points here and there. People also realized it was the most well-balanced, healthiest plan out there." In fact, weight Watchers has been consistently praised for being among the most reliable and scientifically-sound diets.

"They were the first ones to create a community for diet and nutrition."

After being owned by Heinz from 1978 to 1999, Weight Watchers was acquired by Artal Luxembourg, filing for IPO in 2001. Sales increased from $810 million in 2002 to $1.5 billion in 2008, and the company eventually expanded into England, Ireland, and Australia. Weight Watchers also began to sell scales, cookbooks, and food containers and venture into Jenny Craig territory with packaged snacks and smoothie mixes. In a final bit of modernization, it revamped its point program as "Points Plus" in 2010, making fruits and vegetables freebies and assigning processed foods higher values.

One of Weight Watchers' largest and strongest points of difference, however, has been its revolutionary support group program, which was the first of its kind back in the 1960s. "They were the first ones to create a community for diet and nutrition," says nutritionist and author Kellyann Petrucci.

"Nutrition has many aspects, like education and motivation," says New York-based nutritionist Erica Lokshin. "The group factor helps with accountability. If you're getting weighed in every week and you have to talk to your group leader and peers, it keeps you accountable. It's definitely a personality thing, but people really do enjoy the group dynamic."

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Yet membership is in rapid decline, decreasing 21 percent in the US since last year alone. Weight Watchers' operating net income also plummeted from $510 million in 2012 to $273 million in 2014, which the company blames mostly on a significant drop in meeting participation, which accounts for 60 percent of its revenue. In its most recent earnings report, the company shared that 2015 revenues were down 22 percent.

Just last month, it was reported that Weight Watchers had caught the interest of a hedge fund looking to take over ownership of the company. Weight Watchers would not provide comment for this story, but when earnings were released last week, CEO Jim Chambers announced that Weight Watchers would be "launching a significant and comprehensive program innovation in all of our major markets that we believe will return the company to recruitment growth."

"The space has become way too competitive and people are busy; the idea of going to a meeting once a week doesn't fit into a lot of people's schedules anymore."

Nutrition experts, though, are skeptical that Weight Watchers can remain relevant in today's crowded weight loss market. For starters, the days of paying for nutrition services are probably over. Between all of the websites, mobile apps, and social media accounts offering free diet and nutrition advice, Weight Watchers memberships seem obsolete.

"At this point, you even have programs like the Mayo Clinic offering nutrition tips and feedback for free," says Koprowski. "The space has become way too competitive and people are busy; the idea of going to a meeting once a week doesn't fit into a lot of people's schedules anymore. It seems like Weight Watchers is just running into the end of its time."

In response to online competition, Weight Watchers launched its "360 program" in 2012, which includes a digital membership. In December of 2014, it rolled out personal coaching on its website, as well as 24/7 online chat rooms, all of which have to be paid for. According to weight loss consultant Diane Carbonell, who was a Weight Watchers member back in its heyday, the move was "too little too late."

"They jumped on it after there already was all this free information available," she says. "You might have people finding it appealing, but why would they start to pay when everything is already out there for free?"

Photo: Getty Images

Movements like Kayla Itsines's BBG prove that there's a desire for online health and fitness communities, but that they can't be engineered. "There's so much happening, from DailyBurn to all these different Facebook groups," says Dr. Charles Platkin, a nutritionist and health columnist. "Weight Watchers has attempted to recreate its experience online, but the most important part of these digital fitness communities is that they all happened organically. It's hard to recreate that commercially."

Carbonell believes the in-person group meetings only resonated with a very narrow segment to begin with, so it doesn't surprise her that participation rates are down given the rise of digital players.

"It was uncomfortable," she says. "If you show up, you are kind of acknowledging to the whole world that you have this issue and then you have to stand on a scale in front a little lady, shedding clothing to try and lose a quarter of a pound. In our town, the Weight Watchers closed a few years after it opened and a cupcake shop opened up in place — now there's some irony."

Photo: Getty Images

American weight loss culture has also experienced a major shift since Weight Watchers claimed itself kingpin of the space. Tracking calories is no longer in vogue, but setting exercise goals is. The company cites fitness trackers as their main source of competition, and from the rise of obstacle course racing to the boutique fitness boom, it's clear that those in the weight management sector are far more interested in working out than dieting.

In last year's annual report, the company admitted that "the increasing focus of consumers on more integrated lifestyle and fitness approaches rather than just food, nutrition, and diet also negatively impacted our recruitment." This move towards wellness has made people more cognizant of what exactly they are eating, even if they aren't diet-obsessed.

"These days, most people have a non-diet approach to their bodies," says Koprowski. "It's a more holistic approach, to just listen to your body. ‘When you're full, you stop eating; when you're hungry, you eat.' It actually has a better success rate than counting calories."

And while the introduction of prepackaged food boosted Weight Watchers' bottom line at the time, it's now proving to be a liability.

"Ingredients are not important to Weight Watchers — you can see that just by looking at their products," says Petrucci. "They just care about results, while people right now are becoming way more aware of ingredients and actually caring about what they put in their bodies, especially Millennials. They are the most consciously evolved group in terms of health awareness. Ingredients and sourcing are the first things they check."

"If you can't capture the younger demographic, which does most of today's spending, how can you pick up?"

"Their food is not very healthy," echoes Carbonell. "Snacks like their cookies and cinnamon rolls have ingredients that you and I do not want to be eating. They have tons of sodium and preservatives. It turns people off when their leaders are pushing these products, while the more popular diets out there right now are about eating real food, cooking homemade meals."

Petrucci believes the writing has been on the wall for years, and that the company should have foreseen troubles based off its customer profile alone. The mostly female membership (around 90 percent of members are women) has an average age of 48.

"If you can't capture the younger demographic, which does most of today's spending, how can you pick up?" she says. According to Platkin, Weight Watchers has spent over $25 million developing its new online system, and as Petrucci points out, "They have much deeper problems if they are investing in all this technology that the majority of its customers don't even use."

In many ways, Weight Watchers is analogous to the now-struggling Avon. Both companies pioneered business models that allowed them to carve their own niche and pave the way for other brands in the pre-digital era. Like Avon, Weight Watchers, it seems, is stuck.

Jennifer Hudson at a Weight Watchers 50th anniversary celebration. Photo: Getty Images

"It's become a tired company that needs a facelift," Petrucci says. "They need to figure out how to recapture the market, whether it's sitting down to figure out how to grab the demographics they are losing or focusing on education and support."

Of course, reinventing a 54-year-old brand can be hard. While Weight Watchers has teamed up with celebrities like Jennifer Hudson and Jessica Simpson in the past, they are lacking when it comes to star power; as Petrucci puts it, "They need a Queen Latifah right about now." Carbonell believes Weight Watchers could gain some traction if it offered in-person, one-on-one fitness and life coaching. Morning Star analyst R.J. Hottovy thinks the solution might be for Weight Watchers to start presenting weight loss as a complete lifestyle — one that involves a combination of health, wellness, and fitness.

Even loyal followers agree it's time to add new elements into the Weight Watchers mix. Back at the company's Midtown headquarters, meeting attendees ask Meghan, who is becoming a lifetime member, how she finally cracked the weight loss code. She lets them in on a little secret: she started training for a marathon.

"Maintaining the Weight Watchers food plan definitely helped, but I personally don't think I could have reached my goal without serious exercise," she says. "It wasn't maintainable when I lost weight the first time five years ago, but now I run and I've found something that I love to do. That's what motivating me."

Editor: Julia Rubin

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