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Summary:

The 50-year-old weight loss stalwart is under attack from new, free fitness apps, but a Chicago startup may offer some clues on how it could fight back.

scale weight

Over five decades, Weight Watchers has become synonymous with weight loss. But for a new generation of smartphone-toting, gadget-loving dieters, the process of shedding pounds doesn’t come through in-person meetings and weekly weigh-ins, it comes from an app.

The company has made efforts to keep up with the times — through a digital subscription service that lets people look up calories, search for recipes and track their progress on the web and mobile devices and with its own activity tracking gadget. But, by its own admission, it hasn’t been able to stem the tide of dieters who’d rather use free mobile apps than Weight Watchers’ premium services.

Commenting on the company’s declining earnings, the company’s CFO Nicholas Hotchkin said earlier this month, “We feel that some of that is driven by the continued sudden explosion of interest in free apps and activity monitors.” The company declined to comment for this story.

New competition for weight loss industry stalwarts

In the past few months, it’s become especially clear that new apps and gadgets are indeed taking off as traditional weight loss companies like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig struggle to reach new customers. Just this month, calorie- and exercise-tracking app MyFitnessPal and activity-monitoring startup Fitbit (see disclosure) both raised significant funding rounds from investors and released new milestones. Meanwhile, Weight Watchers replaced its CEO amid declining profits and Jenny Craig announced a new marketing strategy after disclosing underwhelming financial results.

Part of the problem, as some industry watchers see it, is a familiar story: Weight Watchers, which celebrated its 50th year in March, has gotten a little too comfortable as the “800-pound gorilla” in its field.

“I think they rested on their laurels a bit,” said Morningstar analyst Pete Wahlstrom.

Its online business, which charges users $19 a month after a $30 sign-up fee, had been doing well for several years, he said, but instead of investing in it and innovating, they used it as a cash cow.  Over the years, the growth of free apps with similar services, like those from Noom, Azumio and Lose It!, has made it increasingly difficult for the company to differentiate and compete.

Free isn’t enough

Some argue that the company’s best chance at survival is offering a product that’s free. And while that might help bring in new users, its real shot at beating the free competition seems to be in finding ways to update its entire time-tested behavior change model for a new era of connectedness.

What Weight Watchers is known for is its ability to get people to change their habits — not just to lose those last 10 pounds, but to keep weight off long-term. In moving its services online, the company has found ways to help build good habits through recipe recommendations, food trackers and planning tools. But it has yet to move one of its most valuable components — its weekly meetings — into the digital age.

Online customers can get social support through Weight Watchers’ message boards. But, by and large, the company doesn’t take advantage of video conferencing software, remote monitoring technology or other new technology that could provide dieters with social support that’s personalized and private, but still allows for community and accountability.

And if it wants some clues on how to do that, it might want to pay attention to a smaller startup in Chicago.

Not your mother’s Weight Watchers

Almost like a modern foil to Weight Watchers’ decades-old model, Retrofit launched about two years ago with a service that combines regular online meetings with dieticians, exercise physiologists and behavior coaches in addition to sensor-based devices. The regular check-ins with coaches keep dieters accountable much like Weight Watchers’ weekly meetings, said founder and CEO Jeff Hyman, but they give people more convenience and privacy. And it relies on the technology people are already comfortable with, like Skype and Fitbits — not outdated web software and utilitarian-looking, custom-built activity trackers.

It’s more expensive: its cheapest plan starts at $128 a month (compared with Weight Watchers’ price of $42.95 for a monthly pass to weekly meetings) but it includes more ongoing support and analysis, as well as personalization. And early data suggests that it’s working. The company said that clients who completed 12 months in its weight loss program lost an average of 19.1 pounds, or 8.3 percent of their starting body weight.

An interesting approach for Weight Watchers could be to apply the same kinds of technologies to its own model of in-person group meetings — weekly meetings could take place via Skype or Google Hangout (incidentally, Weight Watchers is an early tester of Google’s new Helpouts) or dieters could get on-demand text support from peers and meeting leaders.

“The advent of technology gives you the opportunity to completely re-imagine the entire experience for the customer,” said Hyman.

And, if Weight Watchers doesn’t want to build that experience itself, there’s always a Chicago startup it could buy.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of GigaOM. Om Malik, founder of GigaOM, is also a venture partner at True.

  1. Love this article! The less emphasis we can put on the ole scale the better…its crippling sometimes for our health.

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  2. I am a fan of digifit and fitbit but I don’t attribute them to the paradigm shift I had to go through to not only lose weight, but to keep it off. Retrofit’s program was responsible for that. The advisors/coaches I was assigned helped me see how easy it was to use the free tools out there but also and more importantly helped me see what I needed to do to think differently and behave differently so that I could achieve my goals and maintain them. Nothing else had worked for me until retrofit. I am finally able to stay healthy and keep the weight off because of the lifestyle retrofit helped me create.

    SE Hanley
    Birmingham AL

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  3. Laurie Woodruff Saturday, August 24, 2013

    Retrofit offers a great combination of personal coaches and technology. The coaches monitor your reported information and make gentle suggestions that fit your behavior but help you modify it gradually. They really tailor their suggestions to you personally and are without exception great listeners about what works for you and what does not. You eat sensibly, exercise and report those activities daily on line, just describing them. No calorie counting. No fixed diets. You also record your weight on a Withings scale daily and your steps with a Fitbit both of which link to the Retrofit website where your progress is shown statistically and graphically. It’s all on line including your regular meetings with your coaches on Skype. I am basically eating what the family eats but with smaller portions of carbs and protein and a lot of vegetables. Also no junk food. I am exercising daily, mostly walking but also a workout. In three months so far I have gone from 239 to 210 lbs. Retrofit is a great program!

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  4. Aubrey Freeman III Monday, August 26, 2013

    Great article. There certainly are many different options available to people who want to live a healthier life. Some people are motivated by trips to the gym and having a personal trainer in their face for an hour and find being accountable to other people works well. Others are motivated by personal achievements and find being accountable to themselves is all they need. I fall into the latter category and have found Retrofit to be a perfect tool in my journey. I actually think the program is a perfect blend of both types of accountability that motivates change. I am accountable to myself with the food diary and activity tracking. The use of a wi-fi scale and a fitbit provides automatic tracking of key data points that would be difficult to manually maintain. I can look at the website and determine on my own how well I’m doing, but I also have a team of people keeping an eye on me as well. If my diet choices start wandering, then my registered dietician can drop me a note with some ideas on how to get back on track. If I’m going on vacation or out to eat, I can ask her for some recommendations on to order at a specific restaurant if they have their menu online. Same goes with exercise. I have gone through 2 or 3 different strength training routines finding exercises that work and don’t work for me either at home or at gym. I have been extremely satisfied with Retrofit and look forward to enjoying my new, more active lifestyle that has developed in the past 6 months while losing 20% of my starting weight.

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  5. Retrofit is not your mother’s diet plan! I’ve used Retrofit for just over a year, lost 15% of my body weight and am sure I’ll lose more and keep it off. It’s a life style changer…..not a diet plan. I love the accountability with the team of advisors I have, the gadgets to help me see the real picture (scale, fitbit), and advice that is useful for the rest of my life!!!

    People keep asking me how I’ve lost all this weight – I tell them its basic math = less in, more working out. That’s how my Retrofit team boiled it down for me and that’s something I can use and do for the rest of my life.

    Feeling GREAT – in Chicagoland :)

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  6. I note the comments that have been posted by current Retrofit users. I won’t duplicate all that has been stated, but I will amplify. Everyone of us (and I mean EVERYONE) has tried the multitude of programs and diets. In many cases, we have succeeded, only to become victims of the yo-yo effect. In essence, we are the perfect customer — we never fully change our behavior patterns and simply spread our dollars over a myriad of programs/diets/fads over an extended period of time. As for me, that circularity is now a thing of the past. Retrofit is the only program that I have ever been on where I truly believe that the results have long-term implications (I have been working with Retrofit for about 1.5 years), that I have truly changed by behavior and habits and that someone (Retrofit) has finally gotten this right. I won’t go into the details, but I will cover a few of the program’s attributes that single it out (and that I loved). First, I ate what I wanted to eat (watching portion size and second helpings). I was not told what I had to eat. Second, it was actually fun. Great interaction with my 3 coaches (diet, exercise and behavioral), all of whom had personalities and senses of humor. I actually looked forward to our Skype sessions and showing off my favorable results. Third, the Withings Scale and Fitbit linkage with the Retrofit website kept me on the staight and narrow and allowed my coaches to monitor my progress (or lack thereof) in real time. In sum, I was treated as an adult, as an individual and as a cared-for client. As you can tell, I’m a fan. Retrofit may cost more, but, as the adage goes, you get what you pay for.

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  7. Retrofit has been the only successful plan that I have used to lose and maintain weight loss. I am nearly a year into it and I can say that it has changed the way I think about my diet, my activity, and my health. I have successfully lost more than 20 pounds and kept it off. The continual feedback, combined with thoughtful and knowledgeable input from my team makes all the difference. I am a huge fan of #Retrofit!

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