Weight Watchers slimming down after profits drop 47%

Posted: February 16, 2014 in General, Motivation, Musings

It was with a wry smile I read this article on the BBC website. I’ve never been a fan of the ‘slimming industry’, in fact I can’t think of a better example of a business which deserves to be pummelled out of existence. If that sounds a little harsh then let’s have a look at the evidence. If the slimming industry model actually worked, if the products were successful,  we wouldn’t have the industry. Instead we would have fit and healthy people. The slimming industry model is built not on customer success, but instead on customer failure. According to research, 77% of people who buy slimming industry products gain all lost weight within 5 years. I can’t think of any other business where a 77% failure rate would be accepted.

The slimming industry makes its bucks by selling dreams – not solutions. Well, not solutions for 77% of the customer base anyway. Buy a fad diet and the products, lose some weight, finish fad diet, put some weight back on again, buy another fad diet and more products. Repeat cycle for the rest of your life, or until you don’t care any more and decide being fat and unfit is acceptable. Wherever there is a fad diet there is someone making money. Buy the book, the DVD, subscribe to the monthly update, the supplements and then wait for the next one to come out that is EVEN better (which is normally not too hard a promise to keep). The money (and we’re talking billions here!) comes in from the repeat failure of customers unable to make a long-term difference. A significant part of that is down to the customer looking for an easy way to have the lifestyle they want while not putting on weight. ‘I want to eat burgers and pizza every night and still look great.’ That is never going to work and anyone who says its possible is lying or more likely about to try to sell you an alternative. Yet the slimming industry keeps on flogging the dream and the suckers keep paying for it.

There is a Weight Watchers group that meet weekly at the gym I go to. I see them sitting around in the reception area. One slim woman with big hair, perfect make up and a painted on smile clicking away on a laptop while taking money, one set of scales and a bunch of overweight people sitting about. There have been a at least a few times I’ve thought of saying ‘instead of sitting on your ass in the reception area why not go into the gym and maybe move around a bit?’ But that would be rude and probably hurtful. I believe that most of the people attending these meetings think that by showing up and paying their fees they are already making a positive step to lose weight.

weight scales

So now Weight Watchers are feeling the pinch themselves. They have fallen victim to the amount of fitness and diet apps out there. We no longer have to sign up to Weight Watchers and attend meetings, we can fool ourselves from the comfort of our own couch while eating potato chips that by downloading an app we are living a more healthy life. It won’t make us any healthier but at least it might make the snake oil market a good bit more competitive which will allow people to have more money for their medical bills when their health fails from following the fads of the slimming industry. Looking at the company statement the writing has been on the wall for WW throughout 2013. Growth in quarters 2013 went 10.9%, 6.6%, 0.6% and then in Q4 down 5.3%. And I’d also love to know what was behind:

Excluding the $14.5 million over-accrual reversal benefit associated with the settlement in Q4 2012 of the UK self-employment tax litigation

Looks like they got off far lighter than they expected for some tax ‘issue’, or perhaps just a clever way to defer some profits to reduce tax dues for the year? Who can say? For me, and I’m not an accountant, the big thing in the statement was how attendance had dropped from 50.7m to 42.9m in one year. So over the course of 12 months approx 1 in 6 people who had been paying Weight Watchers decided to stop. There is no business on the planet looking at that statistic that isn’t thinking ‘we must do something about this’. It’s also a chance for a positive change. Its their big chance to do something the slimming industry has never done – provide an honest product that makes a lasting difference. I’m not holding my breath though.

One last thing, if you ever get the chance to see the BBC series The Men Who Made Us Thin, then I really recommend you do so. A fascinating documentary on the marketing that leads us to purchase products from the slimming and health industries and also some of the history behind it. A really good series. You can find a write-up of it here.

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