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Weight Watchers vs. the Millennials

The latest gambit by Weight Watchers to remain relevant is sliding faster than my willpower when I walk into a bookstore. Oprah Winfrey has lost more money in Weight Watchers stock in one day than 99% of us will make in our lifetime. That’s something to ponder as we sip our non-fat lattes and squint at food labels to make sure that there’s no high fructose corn syrup in our diets.

The blame is placed squarely on Millennials and our preference for “healthy eating and fitness programs versus solely relying on weight-loss plans.” We love to share our weight loss experience, but we do it through social media rather than the in-person meetings that made Weight Watchers a powerhouse in the first place. Our generation, more than any other, knows what it takes to maintain a healthy lifestyle. We’re also savvy shoppers. When student loans come knocking at the door and you still want to lose weight, you’re going to reach for a free app over Weight Watchers.

No matter how slick Weight Watchers’ website looks or how innovative its apps are, it’s not going to stop that downward slide until it retools how it thinks about two key things: the basic cost of the program and how it approaches its in-person meetings.

High cost of entry

Emily Lackey did a great piece on the cost of losing weight, especially when you’re cycling again and again. The gist of it? Losing weight can be expensive.

Right now, the basic Weight Watchers OnlinePlus plan is $39.90 for the first three months, then $19.95 per month. The current promotion will allow you to waive the startup fee, but if you have to pay that, it’s another $20. So for a year on Weight Watchers for just online access, that’s $219.45 without the startup fee.

It’s actually not that bad until you look at similar programs. The four options below all have the following in common:

  • A free tracker that allows you to record food and exercise, including letting you add your own food to the database. Some of them will let you input your own recipes.
  • Syncing with most fitness trackers. Some won’t sync with smartwatches, but you should be fine with a FitBit.
  • All of them also offer a premium option that allows access to more features and, in some cases, personal coaching.

FitBit

FitBit’s premium membership is $49.95, and that’s not including the cost of a tracker. You get detailed reports, can measure benchmarks against other FitBit users, and a personalized 12-week fitness plan. There’s also the FitStar app, which provides customized personal training for $39.95 a year. COST FOR ONE YEAR: $149.89 if you purchase a FitBit Zip and get both FitBit Premium and FitStar. If you swapped in the high-end FitBit Blaze, that will be $289.85. The final cost will lie somewhere in-between based on what FitBit you purchase.

Lose It

Lose It’s premium service get you access to a lot of different trackers and challenges. You can also load up your tracker in advance with what you plan to eat for the week and check it off as you come to it. Same thing goes for exercise. You don’t get any personalized coaching or access to a recipe database. COST FOR ONE YEAR: $39.99.

MyFitnessPal

The community here has the same feel as the Weight Watchers one but is far more active. If you want to add recipes your tracker, MyFitnessPal has one of the easiest methods of doing it by pasting in the URL and letting it scrape the website for you. A premium membership gets you no ads and the ability to customize what you track. Like Lose It, you don’t get personalized coaching. There are some MyFitnessPal-provided recipes, but not that many. COST FOR ONE YEAR: $49.99.

SparkPeople

This website doesn’t get nearly enough praise for what it offers. It’s essentially Weight Watchers without the SmartPoints program and the giant paywall. There’s lots of trackers, plenty of articles, lots of recipes, a suite of mobile apps, and an active community. There’s even an option of letting SparkPeople generate an entire meal plan for you, right down to the grocery list. All of this is free. There’s a couple drawbacks, mainly if you use the Apple Watch as your fitness tracker. There’s no integration with it yet. If you want a personal coach, you can sign up for SparkCoach for $8.99 a month. COST FOR ONE YEAR: $107.88 with SparkCoach.

By the way, this is just comparing the basic Weight Watchers OnlinePlus with these programs. If you’re considering Weight Watchers Meetings to go with the OnlinePlus, that’s $494.45 a year.

Better in-person meetings

I attempted in-person Weight Watchers meetings three times: once in Alabama in my early 20s and twice in Pennsylvania, the most recent in 2014. The leaders were professional and the other people at the meetings were pretty nice. But the whole point is to forge a bond with people so you can lose weight together. Thanks to my work schedule, the meetings I attended were filled with people either 30–40 years older with me or harried moms. The advice given out was geared toward juggling weight loss with family obligations. That’s great if you’re a mother or a senior. It’s not so relevant if you’re single or you don’t have kids.

In between those times, I tried the online program. The message boards are horrible and will probably make any lover of modern web design sob. For example, the only threads in the board for those in their 30s had something to do with SLOTS and someone moaning about their birthday. The other boards are equally depressing. You can get some good advice there, but I’m not sure where the community support Weight Watchers brags about comes from.

Weight Watchers needs to be the Netflix of weight loss

For Weight Watchers to even begin competing for Millennial dollars, they need to do two things:

Lower the cost of the online-only plans: $19.95 a month for basic access to the website and its program is ridiculous, no matter how you package it. You can get everything the OnlinePlus plan offers plus personalized coaching with SparkPeople for half the cost. OnlinePlus should be $9.95 per month for what it offers. If Weight Watchers did 99 cents for the first month then $9.95 after that, they’d probably be pleasantly surprised by the number of people who join and stick with it. Weight Watchers for the price of a Netflix subscription. You can’t beat that. The ads practically write themselves.

Make the meetings more relevant: In addition to the large general meetings for all people, try having meetings for specific demographics. Do Weight Watchers meetings for just moms. For people who don’t have kids. For people who speak Star Wars and Doctor Who. For sports lovers. For seniors. For just teens. Have meetings at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. or 5:30 a.m. You can deliver the same message but it’s a lot easier to bond with a group if you have something in common other than just losing weight. Weight Watchers already does this with its At Work program, where you get the chance to lose weight with your co-workers. Go bigger. Go bolder.

Weight Watchers has good ideas, and its Beyond the Scale and SmartPoints programs are steps in the right direction. And the meetings, for a lot of people, are exactly what they need: a weekly date to keep them accountable for their diet and exercise.

But if they want to really bring in Millennials, then they need to price the program to go along with the way we think and shop. As long as Weight Watchers maintains its expensive prices and its dated approach to meetings, then those subscriber numbers will continue to fall.