By Madeline Will
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Facing increased competition from free calorie-counting apps, Weight Watchers International Inc is targeting a steadily growing market - employers looking for a leaner workforce.
U.S. companies are eager to trim rising health care costs and more are implementing employee wellness programs, some involving weight loss. Those programs are expected to expand next year when provisions of the Affordable Care Act that encourage obesity prevention kick in.
Weight Watchers has seen its revenue dip in the first half of the year as it struggles to convince cost-conscious dieters to pay $18.95 a month for an online subscription when they have access to free or inexpensive weight loss apps on their phones.
"It's been an ongoing struggle to try and differentiate themselves from those apps," said Wedbush Securities analyst Kurt Frederick.
Some of the apps even rival Weight Watchers' edge in providing a supportive community to help with weight loss. The free, calorie-counting app My Fitness Pal, for example, has an active forum online.
Weight Watchers Chief Financial Officer Nicholas Hotchkin told analysts the calorie-counting apps can't compare to the company's holistic approach to weight loss, which advocates for lifestyle and behavioral changes. But it certainly has shed some revenue. Last week, it reported second-quarter revenue down 4 percent to $465.1 million. Shares plunged. They closed on Thursday at $37.57, almost 21 percent lower than a month ago.
But Weight Watchers' partnership with companies eager to slim down their employees was a bright spot. Experts say employee weight-loss programs are good for worker productivity and employee retention.
Weight Watchers' workforce division might be a small piece of the diet pie for now, but revenue for its partnership with large employers grew about 30 percent this quarter. Regional partnerships, with small employers, saw a 1 percent decline in sales. The company has remained tight-lipped on exact details of the division's results and declined to make an executive available to discuss them.
Called Health Solutions, the division partners with corporations to create incentive programs that range from partially subsidizing Weight Watchers program fees for employees to giving employees a discount on health insurance if they attend a certain amount of meetings, said Susan Craig, a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers.
She added employees can also attend Weight Watchers meetings in their office, or use online tools customizable to the company.
American Express and the New York Stock Exchange Euronext are among the companies using Weight Watchers.
Newly appointed CEO James Chamber, who replaced David Kirchhoff, said on a recent conference call with analysts that he has seen strong interest in the marketplace. The company, he said, plans to commit more resources to the workforce division.
But for now, Health Solutions remains small and cannot yet offset any losses inflicted by mobile competitors. Frederick estimated the workplace wellness programs likely make up less than 5 percent of sales, compared to the meetings and the online business.
The potential market is growing. Some 86 percent of the 120 U.S. companies surveyed offer wellness-based incentive programs, according to a survey by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit representing large employers' perspective on health policy. That's up from 57 percent in 2009.
But employers are not required to report their participation in these programs, so it is hard to gather exact data, said Harald Schmidt, a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics. Weight loss programs are still a minority of those programs, he said.
LuAnn Heinen, vice president of the National Business Group on Health, said the healthcare reform could create buzz and spur further implementation of employee wellness programs. The programs have been growing in popularity for at least five years.
"Large employers are already really interested in doing this," she said. "For smaller and midsize employers, this could drive them into doing this."
The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, will raise the incentive level caps to 30 percent to allow employers to reward healthy employees with lower insurance premiums, or penalize unhealthy workers with higher premiums.
Most employers are still far from the current cap of offering incentives at 20 percent, and it is more common for employers to raise premiums on smokers than overweight workers, Heinen said.
Weight Watchers will have little competition in the workforce sphere, Frederick said, adding it is more attractive to employers than weight loss programs like Jenny Craig, which offers participants frozen healthy meals.
Food delivery would be more expensive for employers to subsidize, he said. A Jenny Craig year-long membership can cost $359, plus the cost of the food, which averages about $18 a day.
Another advantage: employers want to use weight loss programs that are clinically tested and proven, Heinen said. "Weight Watchers is the most significant stand-alone brand, and the most requested by employees by miles."
(Reporting By Madeline Will; Editing by Jilian Mincer and Leslie Gevirtz)