What’s Happening on My Watch?

An investigation into smartwatches on the high street

A year or two ago, it felt like you couldn’t move for wearable technology. Smartwatches and fitness bands, especially those from Fitbit and Apple, seemed to adorn the wrists of people everywhere. It didn’t matter if you were a diehard tech fanatic who couldn’t wait for the latest piece of gadget bling, or a technophobe who just fancied knowing how many steps you were taking. Wearables were everywhere, and wearables were cool.

This isn’t to say that wearables are a thing of the past. They’re still big business and CCS Insight expects the market to keep growing (see Halo Effect of Apple Watch Spurs Wearables). Hoping to take the temperature of the wearables market in the UK and test the buying experience for high-street shoppers, I recently paid a visit to London’s Westfield shopping centre.

Unsurprisingly, the Apple Watch remains by far the most popular smartwatch in a wide range of stores. In fact, during my mystery shopping trip, it was striking how many times throughout the day customer service agents said other watches were “like an Apple Watch”, even just in passing. Samsung watches are also present in most network operator stores but are harder to find elsewhere.

Something that also caught my attention was how few times customer assistants offered me a wearable device as an add-on when I inquired about buying a smartphone. Only one instance when my interest in a Samsung Galaxy phone led a salesperson to suggest a complementary watch. I was surprised not to see this tactic used more often.

Fitbit doesn’t have its own retail stores, so it’s reliant on retailers to put its products on the shelves. Some stores display Fitbit devices prominently in a dedicated display stand; sometimes this works well, but in other cases, less so. One shop had tucked the Fitbit display unit in the corner, making it look very unloved, with little effort paid to presentation — hardly a great advert for the devices.

Beyond Apple, Samsung and Fitbit, some fashion brands are betting on Google’s operating system, Wear OS, to boost their appeal. The Fossil Group continues to grow its range of smartwatches using Wear OS for the many brands under its umbrella. Its smartwatches were a focal point in Fossil and Skagen stores, whereas in the past they tended to be shown in the corner.

It was also interesting to see Fossil’s hybrid smartwatches — devices that add smart features to traditional watch designs — being pushed more strongly. When I talked to staff, it became clear that they see these devices as a way to tempt a more fashion-conscious set of customers to get a smartwatch on their wrist. Interestingly, the Fossil and Skagen outlets were the only ones to show smartwatches alongside other fashion items or clothing; every other device I saw was firmly planted in the technology section of shops.

Watches from other brands are few and far between. A smattering of Garmin devices can be found in stores but typically without any information to explain their high prices, which are likely to put off casual consumers. The Garmin Fenix 5 Plus, for example, is priced at £475 in John Lewis. It’s eye-wateringly expensive compared with other wearables on display, yet the listed features fail to reach beyond 24/7 activity tracking and heart-rate monitoring. As this is a dedicated multisports watch with highly advanced tracking and mapping capabilities, it does feel as though stores could do much more to differentiate devices to the average consumer and make clear their intended use.

To wrap up my shopping trip, I popped into a toyshop and found it was selling a limited range of VTech wearables, including a Star Wars-themed kids’ smartwatch. CCS Insight believes popular brands like Star Wars (or Lego) could kick-start the kids’ watch market that has been so successful in China, so expect to see this trend develop.

The only other location I saw that was selling a kids’ smartwatch was the Vodafone store. My conversations with staff there suggest that the V by Vodafone device is proving popular, but more so with parents, who like the idea of tracking their children, rather than the kids thinking it’s a cool object to have.

So, what conclusions did I leave the shopping mall with? Overall, consumers have a wealth of wearables to choose from, but buying them from high-street stores can be a mixed experience. Given that a watch is traditionally as much of a fashion item as a time-telling device, it makes sense that there’s a growing number of fashion brands targeting the wearables market, mainly led by the Fossil Group.

But there’s still a lot of work to do, and I’m sure we’ll see more of this in the future. I also expect some good growth in kids’ smartwatches over the next couple of years, as more companies look to tap into this attractive market. I’ll be making sure I pay a regular visit to the shops to see how wearable trends are ticking along.