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Fibit trackers screenshot
This screenshot, courtesy of Fitbit.com, shows three new wearable activity-trackers from Fitbit, a company that recently partnered with Medifast Inc.

Medifast embraces Fitbit activity-trackers

The diet business sure isn’t what it used to be.

Back in 1980, when Owings Mills-based Medifast Inc. was founded, who would have thought the weight-loss company would end up scrambling to partner with a bracelet manufacturer?

Nobody, I would think. But that’s what happened.

Medifast, which develops weight-loss products and programs, announced a partnership with San Francisco-based Fitbit Inc., a leader in the new-ish health- and fitness-technology industry. Fitbit sells a line of activity-trackers (including these three new products) that measure everything from miles ran and calories burned to heart rate and body mass index to sleep patterns.

These glorified bracelets are all the rage in the fitness world, and Medifast knows it. That’s why, about nine months ago, the company starting exploring ways to break into the “connected health and fitness space,” as the industry is sometimes called.

Medifast came up with a plan to launch three online dashboards that sync up with three of the company’s sales channels. Each dashboard is customized based on the customer and the kind of Medifast program they’re using.

The online platforms allow people to monitor their progress toward their fitness and weight-loss goals and track the same kind of metrics that wearable activity-trackers measure.

But that was only half of Medifast’s strategy. The company also approached Fitbit about a partnership, and the device-maker accepted.

“When we were developing this new dashboard platform, we thought it would be an important add-on to partner with a device company,” said Lisa Goldberg, Medifast’s director of product and program marketing.

Partnering with a device-maker wasn’t a prerequisite for launching the dashboards; Medifast would have unveiled the digital offering anyway, and people don’t need an activity-tracker to use the dashboards.

“We definitely felt the need to offer a more contemporary level of digital support to our customers, so that was our first priority,” Goldberg said. “Then finding the partnership with Fitbit was the icing on the cake. The activity-tracker market is blowing up, so we wanted to make sure that was part of our offering.”

Medifast hopes to grow its customer base by tempting fitness-minded people to try the dashboards. After that, the company hopes those people will be intrigued by Medifast’s offerings — such as the Take Shape for Life personal coaching division — and decide to take their fitness regimen to the next level, said Brian Kagen, executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

“I think everybody is recognizing that the more tools you can offer the consumer, the higher the likelihood of their success,” Kagen said. “So [Fitbit] sees the benefit of our products and programs, and conversely, we see the benefit of the software and hardware of their technology.”

The partnership also enables Medifast sales associates to sell Fitbit devices through its established channels. Medifast buys the bracelets wholesale, sells them at retail price and keeps a portion of the revenue.

The new source of revenue, and the potential for snagging new customers, is crucial for Medifast right now. During the second quarter of the year, Medifast experienced a 17 percent drop in net revenue – decreases were seen across all sales channels – as well as a significant drop in net income, compared to the prior year period.

The company plans to announce its third-quarter earnings on Nov. 5.

About Alissa Gulin

Alissa Gulin covers health care, education and general business at The Daily Record.