Dolphins on a diet: Nutrisystems January results foreshadow Q1 miss

It’s good to see Dan Marino and Don Shula working together again, this time pitching weight loss programs for NutriSystem. Yet despite revenue growth of 166% last year, the stock has dipped 30% following a cloudy Q1 outlook from NutriSystem management. This is troubling since January is to the weight-loss market what the fourth quarter is to retailers (and quarterbacks). Is this another case of the Dolphin curse, or will Team NutriSystem remain the most winning duo in NFL history?

On the graphic below, the area graph shows the aggregate time on weight loss sites in seconds and the lines indicate time on the three largest sites as a percentage of the total in the weight loss category for the time period starting on December 1, 2006 and ending on Januay 31, 2007.

Losing weight, gaining attention
Compete analyzed consumer activity on the 58 largest weight-loss sites (a subset of our Health category) to shed light on what’s going on at NutriSystem. Rather than unique visitors, we focused on the daily time that people spent on these sites to better measure how much attention we gave to dieting after our holiday splurge. Well, guilt kicks in quickly: after falling off from Thanksgiving, average daily attention increased 25% the week beginning December 24th, and another 75% the week beginning December 31st. The largest daily increases occurred on December 26th (90%) and January 1st (66%).

The sites commanding the biggest share of attention among the dieting hopeful were Weightwatchers, eDiets and Nutrisystem. In addition to banner-driven traffic, total search referrals from Google to the three domains increased 2.5 times in the two weeks following Christmas (we have found search is a great proxy for consumer demand).

Guilty Mondays
Notice those sawtooths on the area graph? Each peak is a Monday, when these sites capture the most attention. While overall interest decreases during January, our attention is refreshed at the beginning of each week. This creates a prime opportunity for weight loss marketers to convert us into customers — that’s when we’re feeling our guiltiest.

This is where NutriSystem’s January under-performance becomes evident. To better understand how the three marketers performed, we calculated their average daily visits during January and indexed each day to the respective site’s average. Days with above average visits index over 100, and the height of the bar displays how much above/below average each day is for each site.

eDiets and Weightwatchers invested steadily throughout January, synchronizing their marketing with our beginning-of-the-week guilt. NutriSystem, on the other hand, chose a different strategy. The column chart above shows that NutriSystem made a big bet: the company invested heavily in the first ten days of January when demand was the highest. This all-or-nothing strategy missed three important Monday peaks (1/15, 1/22 and 1/29), staking its success on the highly competitive early days of January. The strategy would have worked if NutriSystem had captured more than its fair share of attention and converted it into new customers. Unfortunately, our data and an early warning from NutriSystem management shows that it did not.

*Results not typical
So this leaves NutriSystem in a precarious position. In order to hit $205 million in revenue and 300,000 customers (the midpoints of its Q1 targets) it needs to make up lost ground amidst tough competition and waning demand in February and March. This will be difficult and expensive: Compete data from 2006 and 2005 show that January represents 40% of Q1 visits to NutriSystem, and that visits decrease 25% post-January.

*Jan07 figures are Compete estimates that were calculated using above ratios. These are not company-reported numbers.

As a result of its January campaign, NutriSystem marketing generated approximately 2.59 million visits to the site. The table above shows a remarkably tight correlation between quarterly site visits, new customers and revenue. Assuming that these ratios hold, NutriSystem needed to achieve 2.79 million visits, 120,000 new customers, and $82 million in revenue in January.

By missing its target by 200,000 visits, there is extra pressure on NutriSystem to convert the visitors it does attract into new customers. If conversion holds steady at its 2006 average (4.3%), this will result in shortfalls to January customer acquisition and revenue targets, misses of 8,900 and $6 million respectively. This would mean Q1 revenue would come in at $199 million, which is below their $200-210 million target. And since every 1-basis point change in conversion translates into approximately $175,000 in revenue, even small slips in conversion are especially damaging. Once again, the magic of Marino and Shula needs to produce a win.

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