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What businesses win in bathing suit season?

May 3, 2012

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Bathing suit season bring on thoughts of fun, surf and ... weight gain. Photo by Flickr user Let Ideas Compete

As bathing suit season looms, I’ve noticed a second wave of the weight-loss and exercise ads that typically rear themselves right after Jan. 1.  Dieters who fell off the wagon back around Jan. 21 are getting a second prodding from the many commercial interests that cater to the overweight.

Asking “who profits?” from America’s obesity epidemic is always a good starting point for business stories, and it’s hard to think of a beat, from small business and franchise to health care systems to IT to manufacturing that doesn’t in some way cater to plus-size patrons.  From weight-loss camps to meal-replacement drinks to personal trainers, myriad niche specialties have sprouted up to help dieters, and now is a great time to profile some of them.

But Reuters is just out with a new report (As America’s waistline expands, costs soar) that looks at the flip side:  How businesses from sports venues to hospitals are adapting their offerings for the growing girth of U.S. citizens.  And unlike most cost-of-overweight stories that focus on health care and medical expenses, this one looks at how our infrastructure is changing to reflect our size.  From sturdier toilets to larger wheelchairs to bigger stadium seats, many facilities and transportation modes are coming to grips with the logistics of serving weightier people.

Even energy use is affected by size:  The Reuters story says that our cars burn a billion gallons of gas a year more than they would if Americans weighed what they did in 1960s.  A billion gallons; amazing.

What about airplane fuel and the cost of operating public transportation with plumper passengers?  Reuters says school buses are getting wider doors, and I’ve noticed stores and casinos seem to be shifting layouts to better accommodate larger shoppers and mobility scooters.  What are other facilities changing about the way they do business?

Then there is obesity and customer relations.  We’ve all seen online flame wars and viral videos about the problems airlines have dealing with passengers of size.  How do other companies handle this sensitive issue, and what do legal and image consultants advise?  Think about theme parks — how are they handling patrons who are growing larger at younger ages?  Are rides and attractions being designed differently, as this blogger suggests?  What about safety policies, especially those related to older rides designed for a slimmer population; are ride operators taxed with turning away people for their own good?  That must be a PR nightmare.

And it seems companies can’t win — we’ve all heard about the pressure on companies like McDonald’s and recent class-action suit loser Nutella to not target children with their fattening products — yet Disney recently shut down an anti-obesity exhibit in Orlando after critics claimed the interactive pro-fitness feature stigmatized and traumatized plump kids.

It’s clear that the issue of accommodating and marketing to an ever-widening population is one that is a minefield for goods-makers and service companies, and likely to be fodder for financial stories for quite some time to come.  And look out Fido, because a recent report says even you are headed to pet fat camp, complete with massage, counseling, acupuncture and stints on the underwater treadmill.  Bon appetit!


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