High-Street Smartwatch Sales Are Behind the Times

Shopping for a smartwatch can be confusing. How can the average person be expected to know if they need over 100 sports modes or if 30 will be just fine? Will the 40 mm or 42 mm case look better on their wrist? And what’s the difference between EEG and ECG readings?

For many potential buyers, the answers to these questions will be found in-store. So, I took it upon myself to visit some of the biggest retailers on London’s high street to get an idea of how smartwatches are being displayed, how they’re being sold and what the pre-purchase hands-on experience is like.

I’m not a big fan of shopping centres, and I don’t think I’ve stepped foot in one for about five years, but I was hoping to find a cornucopia of smartwatch offerings at Westfield Stratford City shopping centre. The experience wasn’t exactly what I expected, and prompted concerns about how sports-focussed smartwatches are being marketed in-store.

My first stop was John Lewis, where I expected to see the widest range of watches in one place. I wasn’t disappointed and found the latest offerings from Apple, Samsung, Google, Fitbit and Garmin. Apart from Google and Fitbit, all the watches had most demonstration modes active, allowing me to play around with the user interface and test sports modes. I was disappointed by the lack of demo modes on the Fitbit watches, especially as the brand’s losing ground to competitors and having sales taken away by parent company Google’s Pixel Watch.

Apple and Samsung are the two biggest smartwatch brands in most markets, so I headed to their Westfield stores for a run-through of the devices. Apple is the standout smartwatch brand when it comes to in-store sales, as shown in our most recent smartwatch user survey, and the allure of Apple stores is well known. As expected, staff were experienced with demonstrating and selling the Apple Watch story. Samsung also impressed me with the thoroughness of its in-store demonstrations — the company is clearly keen to match its rival and provide first-class experiences to shoppers.

However, I’d argue that in-store experiences aren’t as critical for brands like Apple and Samsung as they once were. Customers are familiar with the companies and their products, and finding information about them is easy given the coverage of device launches each year. It’s the smaller, specialized brands that will benefit most from giving customers in-depth tours of their devices.

Having seen many demonstrations of Apple and Samsung watches, including in network operators’ stores, I decided it was time to seek out other brands. I went on the hunt for more sports watches, heading for Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports. Ironically, it was one of the more enlightening experiences I had, even though the store no longer sells smartwatches.

A helpful shop assistant told me that Ellis Brigham stopped selling smartwatches because of slow sales and rapid update cycles, which left previous generations undesirable and selling at heavily discounted prices or a loss. I was instead directed to Snow+Rock and Cotswold Outdoor.

So, I headed to Covent Garden in the hopes that these recommendations would have some sports watches for me to try. But the only non-Garmin sports watch I found was a Coros Apex in Snow+Rock; the only demo units were Garmin products; and to top it all off, the demo unit was out of battery.

This leads me to the main finding of my UK retail adventure: the sales approach to sports watches is fundamentally flawed.

The beauty of a dedicated sports watch is its niche and nuanced features, from extensive arrays of physical buttons to tracking modes that go far more in-depth than those of mainstream rivals. I know this from personal experience, as I’m yet to find a watch other than my Garmin that has a climbing mode to track the grade of my climb. Without fully featured demo units to try, many potential customers will be unaware of additional features that specialized sports watches offer and may opt for the security of a device from a recognized brand that they can talk to an in-store expert about.

Overall, I came away with the view that the brands that need the high street the most aren’t effectively using in-store and hands-on experiences, pushing potential customers to their mainstream competitors as a result. The UK high street has been in peril for many years, and maybe this is just a symptom of a larger problem. But given how busy the stores I visited were at midday on a Tuesday, I can’t help but feel that opportunities are being missed.