Your Month to Diet Makes Self-Help Firms Hungry

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006

A Better You has long been a top goal for each new year, but as resolutions go, it often doesn't last long into the annum. Now, thanks to Internet number crunchers, the short-lived nature of the huge spike in dieting, exercise and all sorts of self-improvement attempts can be tracked in a simple chart. And our better and worse natures have become data points for companies to see and exploit.

In dieting, for instance, "The peak only lasts for, like, two or three days," said Bill Tancer, global research director for Hitwise, an Internet traffic research service.

And then, predictably, it trails off, like so many good intentions.

But while the surge in interest in diet, exercise and other self-improvement lasts, companies such as Weight Watchers International Inc., NutriSystem Inc. and many smaller businesses on the Web take advantage of the small and powerful window of opportunity to get new business that may -- or, ahem, may not -- last through the year. Prevention magazine's site tells visitors "How to change your life in the New Year." General Nutrition Centers Inc.'s site is trumpeting its "biggest sale of the year." The Web site of Gaiam Inc., a yoga and "lifestyle" company, urges visitors to "resolve to evolve."

Some of the most-viewed resolution sites tracked by Hitwise are BodyBuilding.com, BeachBody.com, Men's Health, Bally Total Fitness, RealAge, ConsumerHealthDigest.com and Dr. Mercola's Optimal Wellness Center.

Weight Watchers' Web site is full of references to New Year's, along with articles on how to set realistic goals. Last Sunday, Jan. 1, the site recorded 180,000 visits, according to the company. By Wednesday, it was up to 600,000. And companies such as Weight Watchers have built such high hopes into their business plans.

At the same time the Weight Watchers site is hitting its yearly high in popularity, the company is converting a higher percentage of those visits into paying customers than at any other time of the year, said Michael Echenberg, vice president of strategy for WeightWatchers.com. Further, he said, the company's ad spending rockets at the first of the year. "We wouldn't spend that money at other times of the year," he said, "because there wouldn't be all those people making New Year's resolutions."

At NutriSystem, one parking lot of employee cars has swollen to three, as the company brings in more workers to handle the annual-diet demand. And at eDiets.com Inc., just about everything is geared to Jan. 1 -- new products, promotions, advertising and manpower.

"We try to launch a lot of our new products and plans at the first of the year to capitalize on that surge," said Shattuck Groome, senior marketing director of eDiets.com. At the end of last month, the company launched its new Mayo Clinic Plan diet, and on last Sunday it introduced a new a weekly, fresh-meal delivery service. The company also unleashed a flurry of new advertising last week, as did industry giants like NutriSystem.

"You can do more because all the retailers go to sleep, so it's easier to get good rates," said George Jankovic, president of NutriSystem.

The diet industry treats the first few days of January as a once-a-year opportunity, much the way the retail industry views the holiday shopping season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. For many companies, analysts say, it's when the bulk of the company's annual business comes in.

"That's why the major health club chains, in January, want to try to put heavy pressure on you to sign up for a yearly membership, or a lifetime membership," said John S. La Rosa, research director for Tampa-based industry research firm Marketdata Enterprises Inc. "People, being creatures of habit, they're going to start out with good intentions in January, but probably by March or April, they've either lost the weight or have given up."

No one knows better than the researchers that the resolution business is good business. Marketdata began its own diet service portal site, Bestdietforme.com, three years ago. La Rosa said traffic to the site has steadily grown, even aside from the sharp spike in visits right now.


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