Smartwatch: Anyone who thought their time is up needs a rethink

By: |
December 29, 2019 6:11 AM

For instance, Frederique Constant is the first Swiss watch manufacturer to introduce the horological smartwatch with a classic look and smart features like activity tracking, sleep monitoring, dynamic coaching and cloud backup.

Titan, a brand synonymous with watches for the past 30 years, has encouraged consumers to buy indigenous quality under its retail store ‘World of Titan’.

A flick of a wrist and a pull on the sleeve seemed a timeless action over a decade ago when people looked at their wrist watches to tell the time. Today, much like everything else, it is a purpose well served by a rectangular device we call a cellphone. But that is not to say the time is up for the time piece. It has been elevated to a fashion accessory, a fitness device and even an investment. So what exactly are the various brands doing to stay relevant?

For the mass market

HMT watches were the quintessential time tellers for the common man since they launched in 1961, but the company was shut down a few years ago. Even in its heydey, the brand saw competition from private labels like Titan and foreign brands.

Titan, a brand synonymous with watches for the past 30 years, has encouraged consumers to buy indigenous quality under its retail store ‘World of Titan’. Realising the vast potential for watches in India, the brand segmented the market to cater to specific consumer groups under brands like Raga, Fastrack, Sonata, Xylys, Zoop and Nebula. “We have factored in consumer insights, design and manufacturing, and branding. Like Raga is for the progressive Indian woman; Fastrack is for the irreverent youth; Sonata for the value-conscious consumer or Nebula for the luxury-seeking consumer,” says S Ravi Kant, CEO, watches and accessories, Titan.

According to Kant, more recent transformations in the industry have been driven by e-commerce and wearables. “E-commerce helped open up the market and bring wide access to the category, further fuelling growth. Smart watches and wearables were pioneered by tech and mobile handset giants, with the launch of smart wrist gadgets. Through partnerships with global firms like HP, Intel and other start-ups, we have introduced several smart watches in our portfolio,” says Kant. The brand is now paying equal attention to accessorising and grooming, which is an accentuated need among youth. The best example to quote here is Fastrack. To improve fitness through wearable bands with features like step count and sleep tracking, Fastrack has emerged as an important gadget-cum-watch.

“Globally wearable shipments have increased by 27.5% over 2017, with India seeing growth of 44%. Fitness trackers led growth in India with a contribution of 70% to the total volume in the segment. Smart watches saw growth of 30% over 2017, higher than the 11% reported between 2016 and 2017. Last year, Titan has grown 81% in the wearable segment, led by Fastrack Reflex bands,” says Kant.

This metamorphosis has been fuelled largely by affordable mobile phones, which included just about any function — entertainment, social interaction or work tool — that the fanciest watch ever had. Somehow easy accessibility to cell phones had faded the craze for watches and people became inseparable from a mobile that also showed time. With that came a wave of technology and fitness that some watch brands encashed upon, and began introducing accessories that did much more than just tell time and made the wrist look as a status symbol. And a large variety of looks and design functionality catered to the needs of an individual.

Getting smart

Product innovation and product development have given rise to the smart watch brands, a portable wearable device used to track various activities such as steps covered in a day, calories burnt, heart rate, and others. It is also being widely used among cyclists, runners, gym-goers, swimmers and athletes, owing to their wide range of monitoring capabilities. As of now, the market is driven by leading tech companies such as Xiaomi, Samsung, Apple, Google. Key players in the category are Apple, Fitbit, Samsung, Garmin, Huawei, etc. Global smartwatch shipments grew at a healthy rate of 48% year-on-year in Q1 2019, driven by Apple, Samsung, Fitbit and Huawei, as per latest research from Counterpoint’s Global Smartwatch Tracker. Commenting on the major shift in the market, Counterpoint Research analyst Satyajit Sinha noted, “Apple Watch shipments grew a solid 49% YoY despite the weak demand for its iPhones. Apple continues to focus on health-related features like ECG and fall-detection in the Apple Watch Series 4. The ECG capability in the Apple Watch is the most desirable feature, as per our latest consumer survey. Apple has now received approval on its ECG features from healthcare authorities of Hong Kong and 19 other countries.”

Meghna Singh, director, Aptronix, an Apple premium reseller in India with 31 retail stores and 10 service centres, has seen watch sales grow three times year-on-year after the watch Series 5 launch. “It is our fastest growing segment. Apple launched the Series 5 at a very competitive price of around Rs 53,000, and additionally decreased the Series 3 watch prices to Rs 20,900 , which further boosted sales,” she says.

Brands like Sonata have a safety watch, Sonata ACT, specially designed for women, enabling the user’s smartphone device to trigger emergency alerts to a network of pre-set recipients. Swiss-made Favre-Leuba has launched the Raider Sea Sky for biking enthusiasts with dial variants in brilliant yellow and orange. The watch is best suited for adventure enthusiasts with water resistance up to 200m, and can measure time for competitive events in split seconds.

Samsung has ventured into the smart watch segment with Galaxy Watch 4G, the first e-sim enabled watch that allows users to make and receive calls, send texts and reply to messages even without their phone. Garmin watches Venu and Vívoactive 4 have features like advanced sleep with Pulse Ox, new respiration tracking, abnormal heart-rate alerts, menstrual cycle tracking, stress tracking with relax reminders, hydration tracking, breathwork activities, among others. “With the shift in the demand pattern from basic analog watches to feature-loaded smartwatches, consumers now demand smartwatches with maximum features and user-friendly interface,” says Ali Rizvi, national sales manager, Garmin India.

Becoming luxury

Even as the market has been heavily dominated by Swiss brands like Rado, Longines, Tissot, Omega in the luxury watch segment, there are a handful of home-grown Indian brands that have carved a niche with newer designs and increasing appreciation for fine watches in the past few years. These micro-brands have the same built-in mechanism and quality as any international fine watch brand and this has helped them gain immense popularity among watch enthusiasts too. Indian brands Bangalore Watch Company and Jaipur Watch Company produce watches in limited numbers that are completely customised as per demand. These brands specially cater to those who look for uniqueness and have a heart for Indian history. “One can observe a rising class of Indians that feels proud of wearing Indian-origin products. Our unique styles in the fine watches category has made us proud to be the first of its kind in this section,” says Nirupesh Joshi, who, along with wife Mercy Amalraj, got fascinated by the craftsmanship and storytelling of Jaeger LeCoultre and Patek Philippe while living in the far east. They left their tech careers in Hong Kong to start Bengaluru Watch Company in 2018. “Bengaluru is the first city to house two famous watchmakers from the subcontinent — the now-defunct HMT, and Hegde & Golay. In honour of these memories, we started the Bengaluru Watch Company,” says Joshi.

Having a deep connection with coins and watches, founder Gaurav Mehta of Jaipur Watch Company (JWC) decided to combine both the elements into a piece that was worthy of being an heirloom. His journey of watch making started in 2013. As a boy, Mehta used to open up his watches out of curiosity to see how they functioned. He placed a coin inside one, reassembled it and started wearing it. This was perhaps the earliest inspiration behind ‘The One Rupee Watch’ that he later created for his company using a 1947 Rs 1 coin. Interestingly, that coin was the last one created under the British rule. He also realised how India had limited expertise with regard to fine watch making. The blend of all these thoughts and ideas led to the formation of the Jaipur Watch Company. “We source coins either from auction houses or numismatic societies. The coins that we use are uncirculated ones. We took the leap of faith based on the confidence that there will be an opportunity for a unique offering and the risk has paid off. We faced tremendous challenges to find ancillary industries that could support manufacturing in India and with cumulative efforts of my team, we have somehow managed to develop a lot of things in-house, now making us an honest Made In India brand and not a brand that assembles or imports from China or elsewhere,” says the 36-year-old watchmaker, who has earned fame in creating timepieces worthy of being passed down generations as heirlooms and as collectibles or memorabilia.

JWC’s bespoke range uses Indian art and artefacts and makes one feel the great Indian connect. “Our watches have the mechanism and quality as any international fine watch has, so why would a tag ‘Made in India’ hold it back? In fact, the Indian watch market has a lot to explore and expand into,” says Mehta, whose personal favourite watch brand is HMT.

Still, Joshi finds the horology market in India to be bipolar — there are the luxury watchmakers on one side with their extensive distribution channels, and the mass-produced brands in different segments on the other. “A vast majority in India still buy watches either from the brand that everyone trusts or from myriad brands that have an international or aspirational appeal; we don’t foresee that trend changing at all. However, if you are well-travelled, well-read, appreciate knowing what goes into making products you use, knowing the makers behind the product, and the story behind the origin of the product, then it’s different. As an independent watchmaker, we have always tried to satisfy the emotional needs of a relatively small set of buyers. Our watches range between `28,000 and `40,000.

Since the size of the wrist watch industry in India is estimated to be `10,000–12,000 crore, the specific price segment within this category is growing at a consistent double-digits annually. With rising disposable incomes and aspirational purchasing power, we see the wrist watch business continuing to grow,” he says.

The Indian customer

Besides timepieces, watches have become indispensable fashion accessories and an expression of one’s personality. From picking something off the shelf to creating your own timepiece from scratch, brands offer creative designs that come in a range of gold and silver. With precious stones, they make the consumer spoilt for choice. Mehta categorises his consumers into two different segments: One who use watches as an exclusive medium to see time and the second for whom watches are an extension of their personality. “Every watch customised for our client is an expression of their character — be it blingy, religious or technology-driven. The bespoke range apart from the regular pret collection comprises coin watches, 3D printed watches, hand painted, peacock feather watches and an upcoming collection involving parts of a scrapped fighter jet from the Indian Navy,” says Mehta.

As consumers are well-travelled and self-assured, the demand is also more about individuals tastes and preferences. “As quoted by Ian Fleming, ‘A gentleman’s choice of timepiece says as much about him as does his Saville Row suit’— so for collectors it is an expression of their personality,” says Anil Madan, director, Johnson Watch Co, a luxury retailer of international watch brands like Chopard, Breitling, Cartier, etc. Madan has seen the original Swiss watch brands’ market remain intact as innovations are mere additions in collections while the value pieces continue to be treasured. “There was a time when luxury watches were generally imported, today brands have opened their offices and stores in India and the consumers prefer to buy locally, where one can see the collection in person,” he says.

Like an asset to cherish for a lifetime, for Rishabh Tongya, creative director, Diacolor, and India partner for de Grisogono, watches are an excellent investment option. He says, “People invest in luxury watches for many reasons: an addition to collections or with the intent of long-term investments as these unique pieces derive soaring prices.” Tongya, who started retailing the de Grisogono collection since 2017 in India, finds the demand for luxury timepieces has increased tremendously owing to the high disposable income, awareness, technology and online retail. “Globally, watches with smart technology are propelling the growth rate of the market. India has always been a price-conscious economy, and with the cascade of disposable income, micro brands have become immensely popular with the design-conscious youth,” he adds.

While it is true that people have varied utilities for devices worn on their wrist, there is a substantial market for classical Swiss timepieces that are stylish and technology driven. According to Arun D’Silva, India director, Frederique Constant, a Swiss watch manufacturer that entered India in 2008, and offers watches that start with a price range from Rs 40,500 and go up to Rs 30 lakh, the watch market is highly segmented. “For Indian consumers, price plays a key role in differentiating brands, and most of the larger players try and compete on this parameter,” he says.

For instance, Frederique Constant is the first Swiss watch manufacturer to introduce the horological smartwatch with a classic look and smart features like activity tracking, sleep monitoring, dynamic coaching and cloud backup. As per D’Silva, Indian consumers are becoming more aware of global trends, and also more demanding. “We introduced the hybrid watch recently, a mechanical timepiece with connectivity capability and self analytics — (including rate, amplitude, beat error) and a world timer. These are all controlled and accessed via a dedicated iPhone app — activity tracking, sleep tracking, fitness coaching and more,” he adds.

This shows that the interest in watches is only growing — the renewed focus on wrist real estate through the buzz that smart watches have created has only furthered the interest in watches. “Consumers are looking at aesthetics and functionality and are willing to pay a premium for both. Brands will have to keep a close watch on how consumers are evolving and continue to create excitement and interest,” concludes Kant of Titan.

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