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Weight Watchers International, Inc. (WTW) Goes on a Crash Diet

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Weight Watchers International, Inc. (NYSE:WTW) recently put itself on a crash diet. Instead of shedding unwanted pounds, however, the company lost nearly a fifth of its market cap in a single day. What caused this steep crash? Did overweight people in America and around the world simply give up on weight loss programs, or is the 50-year old company struggling with growing pains, as hungry, aggressive competitors nip at its heels? Let’s take a look at Weight Watchers’ financials and see if the company can put on some pounds again.

Weight Watchers International, Inc. (NYSE:WTW)The classic weight loss program

Founded in 1963 and with a presence in 30 countries around the world, Weight Watchers is the largest weight loss program in the world. The company’s current program is called “PointsPlus,” which counts calories as points to help members improve their eating habits. Membership programs traditionally consist of regular food deliveries and face-to-face or online meetings to track member performance.

Fourth Quarter Earnings

For its fourth quarter, the company posted a net profit of $58 million, down from $63.7 million in the prior year quarter. However, excluding one-time benefits and charges, the company earned 96 cents per share, up from 86 cents per share a year earlier. Meanwhile, revenue rose 1.7% to $407.9 million.

Both its top and bottom lines exceeded the Thomson Reuters forecast, which called for earnings of 87 cents per share on revenue of $398 million.

Looking ahead, Weight Watchers expects to earn $3.50 to $4.00 per share for the year, missing the Thomson Reuters’ consensus of $4.75. Three primary concerns caused its guidance to be slashed: competition, marketing and recruitment.

Increased Competition

The company attributed its lowered guidance to increased competition from Nestle SA, Jenny Craig, NutriSystem Inc. (NASDAQ:NTRI) and Medifast, Inc. (NYSE:MED), which all offer weight-loss programs. To combat these rivals, Weight Watchers increased its marketing expenses by 5.8%, which caused overhead costs to rise 21%. The company has aggressively used new, expensive TV campaigns and online ads targeting men in the United States, which have made little impact.

Expensive, Ineffective Marketing

CEO David Kirchhoff admitted that the company’s current marketing has been ineffective in recruiting new members, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. “Our January ads lacked the persuasion we needed,” he stated bluntly. He also blamed decreased spending power in these markets. “Consumers saw their paychecks shrinking by mid-January. Suffice it to say the timing was less than ideal for us,” he told analysts.

Recruitment and Attendance

However, the real reason for Weight Watchers’ slide was another key figure: attendance. During the fourth quarter, Weight Watchers’ attendance dropped 14%. The company expects this trend to continue, and expects an additional “mid-to-high teen” decline in attendance in the first quarter of 2013.

In other words, fewer people are signing up, so investors can expect a big revenue and earnings miss in the first quarter. On the bright side, Weight Watchers’ smaller online service posted 4.5% growth, which represents a possible avenue of growth and expansion.

The Foolish Fundamentals

But before we proclaim that it’s time to sell or short this stock, we need to compare its fundamentals to two smaller rivals — Nutrisystem and Medifast.

Nutrisystem originally sold weight loss products and offered consultations at its brick and mortar locations, but now only sells products on a direct-to-consumer model on television, and at retail outlets such as Costco Wholesale Corporation (NASDAQ:COST) and The Kroger Co. (NYSE:KR).

Medifast was founded by William Vitale, M.D., who sold his products directly to other doctors who prescribed them to patients. With the strong, credible backing of medical institutions, Medifast products became extremely popular after they were offered to the public.

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