ANALYSIS: Wearable Tech

Who wears wins

Once a watch just told you the time. Now they can monitor heart rate, track fitness, send emails and communicate with your appliances and heating and security systems. Libby Plummer investigates

One of the fastest growing sectors in the consumer electronics market is wearable tech, which includes everything from smartwatches and fitness trackers to smart jewellery and virtual reality goggles.

The rapid innovation and fashion-led nature of the products means that retailers should prepare for fast turnover and high sales.

“Wearable technology will be the next generation of devices to transform how individuals consume and use information. The connected device industry is continuously diversifying into new areas, with wearables presenting a growing opportunity,” explains Jason Lovell, Samsung’s senior product manager for VR and wearables.

A massive 99 million wearable devices were sold across all categories in 2015, marking a 76 per cent year-on-year growth, according to Futuresource Consulting’s recent Global Wearables report.

Closer to home, Britain has overtaken Germany as the largest wearables market in Europe, with the biggest leap from the health and fitness trackers which saw a 235 per cent year-on-year growth in sales in 2015 (source: GfK).

But Mark Needham, founder of wearable gadget distributor Widget, warns: “Although it is still early days for this developing sector, retailers should be getting on board now before the market becomes saturated.”

Fitness sells

Fitbit Blaze
Fitbit Blaze

The popularity of fitness trackers – largely wrist-based – has grown rapidly, perhaps due to their relatively affordable price tags and clear benefits, usually daily tracking of steps and sometimes, sleep, heart rate and calories burnt.

The ever-growing selection from brands such as Jawbone, Garmin and UK market leader Fitbit means that there’s plenty for consumers to choose from, including various designs, colour options and fastenings.

“Within the activity tracker market, first and foremost, customers are seeking choice. They are increasingly looking for a device to support not only their health and fitness goals, but their lifestyle, too,” says Fitbit’s marketing director Lucy Sheehan, adding: “Wearable devices need to look just as good in the gym as they do in the office or on a night out.”

What’s more, buyers don’t necessarily want to be limited to a device that only works with one type of smartphone.

“People are also increasingly looking for devices that are platform-agnostic. iOS, Android and Windows should all be standard offerings,” says Ms Sheehan.

With products ranging from hard-core athlete-focused sports watches like the Garmin Forerunner 630 to the Fitbit Alta, which looks more like a piece of jewellery than a fitness tracker, there’s plenty of choice.

One of the advantages of wearable tech is that potential buyers can try on the devices in-store to get a feel for what they look like on. Will Jones, head of buying communication technology at John Lewis, says: “We want to merchandise wearable tech so that consumers can fully interact with the products, allowing them to try on the gadgets and see the connected app in action.”

While the design and the look of the product are vitally important for something that’s going to be worn all day long, there are other key considerations for buyers.

Samsung Gear VR
Samsung Gear VR

Samantha Holroyd, assistant category manager for smart tech at Currys PC World, says: “The top three features that consumers look for in a wearable device are: battery life, waterproof ability and design.”

While fitness trackers currently account for the bulk of wearable tech sales, smartwatches are also gaining ground.

Techie timepieces

Boosted by the Apple Watch, smartwatch sales are slowly building momentum. Techie timepieces such as the Pebble Time, Moto 360 and Sony SmartWatch 3 bring a host of extra features, including social media notifications, the ability to receive and reply to messages, quick access to schedules, alarms and music controls and, of course, the ability to tell the time.

Some specialised devices feature additional functions, such as the Moto 360 Sport with its built-in GPS, heart-rate monitoring and gesture control. Samsung’s Gear S2 was the first device from a major manufacturer to feature an embedded SIM, enabling it to make calls independently of a smartphone.

Although smartwatches are slowly gaining a foothold, they are a much harder sell because of their higher prices and less obvious benefits.

Futuresource Consulting’s 2016 smartwatch market report says: “Many consumers are still not sure how a smartwatch will benefit them in terms of lifestyle and practicality. Currently smartwatches need to be charged and feel extremely techie and bulky for many people.”

One thing that does make smartwatches stand out for retailers is the range of personalisation options involved. Because watches are worn daily, consumers often want a product in a similar style to what they would choose in a traditional watch.

Says Marcus Frost, senior marketing director, EMEA, at Motorola: “We believe consumers are looking for a device that looks beautiful and feels great on the wrist, with a design that means that it will seamlessly fit into their daily lives.”

Apple Watch
Apple Watch

Available in several different sizes, the Moto 360 2 is one of the most personalisable smartwatches around, along with the Apple Watch, which has a huge range of different wristbands to choose from. Several makers, including Samsung and Apple, have also introduced options in rose gold – perhaps the most ‘on-trend’ metallic finish of the last year.

The introduction of new features such as health tracking and contactless payment, as well as battery life improvements, will also help to boost smartwatch sales.

Widget’s Mr Needham adds: “As wearables become more mainstream, fitness trackers and smartwatches are becoming one product group. Basic step trackers and the most sophisticated smartwatches are two ends of the same spectrum.”

Virtual reality

One of the latest additions to the wearable tech arsenal is virtual reality headsets, such as the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and affordable Google Cardboard. While the more expensive headsets, such as Sony’s upcoming PlayStation VR, are primarily aimed at gamers, the scope of VR is huge, covering everything from fashion to sports and films.

Some headsets, such as the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Cardboard, are made to work with smartphones, meaning that users can simply download VR apps for a 360-degree experience. Samsung also recently announced its Gear 360 camera, which will enable users to easily create, view and share their own 360-degree VR videos.

It’s still early days for VR, but the fledgling sector is starting to grow steadily and the key is demonstration. It’s almost impossible to explain the benefits of VR to buyers without getting them to try it out for themselves.

Tracking the future

Smartwatch shipments recently overtook traditional Swiss-made watches for the first time, according to data from Futuresource Consulting, with traditional brands introducing products like the Tag Heuer Connected.

Jawbone UP
Jawbone UP

“Niche products will begin to evolve for specific purposes, such as measuring sun exposure or documenting women’s menstrual cycle,” predicts Currys PC World’s Ms Holroyd.

Smart jewellery, such as the Ringly smart ring and Elemoon colour-changing bracelet, are also expected to become more common. What’s more, only 35 per cent of smartwatch owners are women, according to Futuresource Consulting’s Living With Digital report, suggesting that there’s plenty of scope for the development of more female-friendly options.

While the current roster of wearables concentrates on staying connected and providing information, Motorola’s Mr Frost suggests that wearable tech purely for fashion purposes – such as a self-dry-cleaning shirt or colour-changing garments, could also take off.

Samsung’s Mr Lovell predicts: “2016 will really be the year of VR and I anticipate this sector growing exponentially, as more and more people get to experience and love the technology. We also predict that this year will mark a shift from ‘recreational health’ feature on fitness trackers to more meaningful functions that can closely monitor a user’s condition and make a difference to their life.”

John Lewis’s Mr Jones concludes: “Wearables will definitely play a part in the connected home revolution. They will be able to tell when you leave your home, to enable security devices or moderate lighting or heating, or even indicate to your smart fridge what food you’ve eaten. It might sound futuristic but really, it’s just around the corner.”