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Fall 2003 It’s About Time

Times a-changin’

But while the picture is still grim for mid-price (over $100) watches, lower-end watches are leading the recovery. “Fashion” watches in the $10-$50 price range are closely following the styling trends of the most popular top-end brands. And fashion watches are selling.

Not so long ago, consumers of mid-range and even low-end watches would frown at fashion watches as “cheap knock-offs,” regarding them as inferior and, well, uncool. But with the economy still iffy, those same consumers—whose fashion sense hasn’t changed but whose spending habits have—are now likely to say “Why not?” says Sonnie Bhupinder, president of Sonnie Trading (Vancouver, BC), a major wholesaler of mass-production, imported watches. “If [consumers] can have a similar style for $10, why pay $100?” he says. And “if a $10 watch breaks or gets lost, it’s not a big deal: they just go out and buy another one.” Not only that, but “people like change, and they might want to have a few different styles.”


Why do consumers spend money on watches when they can check the time just about everywhere? After all, the time of day is displayed on everything digital—cell phones and microwaves, dashboards and PDAs, computers and ATMs, even cash register receipts. The answer is simple: for countless people, the primary function of watches is no longer telling time. Instead, it’s almost solely about statements: fashion, status, or both.

While watches may no longer be the functional necessity they used to be (and not so long ago, either), they’re still important to the buyer for making a fashion statement. As an accessory, a watch and its styling helps define the wearer’s look, taste, lifestyle (actual or desired), and even social status.

First, it’s fashion. For that reason, few people have only one watch these days. Rather than just one costly watch, they prefer buying three or four fashion watches of reasonable quality in order to match several outfits or add to different looks. “Many people collect watches and have a different one for every occasion,” says Keith Strandberg, watch editor at the trade magazine In Sync. “People are getting savvy about watches and are buying more than ever before.” In a recent In Sync survey, 70 percent of respondents said they owned more than three watches. And in a nationwide consumer study that the trade publication Jewelers Circular Keystone conducted, exactly two-thirds of consumers who buy jewelry and watches at mall kiosks make repeat purchases: of those, 50 percent buy two watches, 27 percent buy three to five, and 6 percent buy 10 or more. Many people who come in to buy just one watch might purchase another one then and there, just because they saw something they liked. “About 40 percent of our customers wind up buying more than one watch,” says Michael DiLeo, president of Anytime Watch & Clock (Exton, PA), a major low-end fashion watch wholesaler.

And then there’s status. Affluent consumers often spend big money on a watch that sends a “Look what I can afford” message. “The whole point is to be noticed, to have someone say, ‘Wow, look at that watch!’” says Strandberg. Whether it’s a double-diamond bezel or a world-famous logo on the face, they’re buying not just a good watch, but one that’s unmistakably upmarket—and enviable.

And that enviability trickles down to everyone else. Consumers with less disposable income want something special and upmarket, too, but at an affordable price. And so designers and manufacturers of fashion watches are paying attention, and following the latest trends seen in upper-end watches.

Wrist candy

imageWhat’s happening in wrist watches? Regardless of the age or gender of the target market, white metal is hot; gold-tone metal is cooling off. Regardless of the metal, size matters: bigger is better. Shape matters, too. Today, rectangular is beating out round, and square is gaining. According to Women’s Wear Daily, curved watch cases (a popular vintage design) are growing in popularity, but the up-to-the-minute shape is the Tonneau rectangle: straight top and bottom with curved or “bulging” sides. The Tonneau has been a key design feature in high-end watches for some time, and is now a favorite across all price points. Also gaining ground: wafer-thin rectangles and “sideways” rectangles.

On the dial, the news is the numbers. With the emphasis on uniqueness and details that define personal style, original design for numerals has become important. For example, some dials have only the 6 and the 12; some have fun or funky-looking numerals—twisted or broken, for example. Art Déco dials feature highly stylized italic numerals, sometimes with diamond accents.

And while there are bold color schemes such as snow-white numerals on dark a blue dial, pastels are the new best-sellers in women’s watches: light blues, light greens, pinks, and lots of yellow. Soft colors were the rage at the trend-setting Watch and Jewelry Show in Basel, Switzerland, last spring—many high-end exhibitors offered sugar-sweet pink, baby blue or white watch faces and straps—so the trend is likely to last well into the holiday season. Also big: citrus brights (orange, yellow, green); retro purple, olive and aqua; and all-white and all-black (which Accessories calls a bold “non-color” statement).

Diamonds continue to be the buzz this year, and while watches at the Basel show sparkled with real stones, including sapphires and rubies, lower-priced watches capture the look with faux stones made of less costly (but still in demand) Swarovski crystal or inexpensive glass. Also around the dial of low-end watches: interchangeable bezels are the rage. Many watches come with three or four bezels of different colors plus straps to match.

For teens

No one loves creative, unique watch designs more than teen girls, who strive to develop their own style.

DiLeo considers impulse-driven teens to be the largest and most important consumer group for watch specialty retailers. They buy tons of fashion accessories, and while handbags, necklaces and belts top the list (they own seven of each, on average), wrist watches are equally important: the average teen girl on the Accessories teens panel owns two.

They follow the fashion-accessory trends pitched right to them by their favorite female singers and movie stars, whom they try to mimic faithfully. They wear what their friends are wearing, the “uniform of the day” to prove they’re “right now”—but at the same time, they want to stand out in (but not from) the crowd. “Everyone ends up having the same or similar things, which is why I like handcrafted or one-of-a-kind pieces,” said one 17-year-old in an Accessories interview.

Tuning in to that quest for individuality, Dakota Watch Company (Cincinnati, OH) has come out with the “Sticker Ticker,” retailing at $49.95. This plain stainless-steel watch comes with a set of 660 colorful tiny stickers, including cute pictures of yellow smileys, green clover leaves, red hearts, blue stars, a soccer ball, alphabet letters and much more. With the stickers and the watch’s screw-off face (a special double-crystal design protects the hands), the owner gets to “design” the face to her liking, and change it as often as she pleases. She can arrange the letter stickers to say anything she wants: “I love Brian” or “Soccer Star” or “Shoe Diva” (whatever), and add tiny, colorful pictures to brighten it up. “The [Sticker Ticker] has been very popular,” says Mandy Pelzel, Dakota Watch’s marketing director. “But we’re coming out with a less expensive, aluminum version to make it more affordable” at $29.95.

Since most teens buy accessories on impulse, price is a critical factor. If they have “$20 to spend on a watch at the mall, they won’t be able to afford a $90 Fossil, but they’ll have enough to buy a watch that looks just like it,” says DiLeo. “Primarily you’re looking at fashion watches that follow the same trends as the more expensive brands but retail anywhere from $10 to $29.95.”

Teen boys look for “anything that’s cool,” says Strandberg. In general, that means watches that do more than just tell time, with elements including non-traditional color and graphics, and new technology. They want “advanced technology in a sporty package,” he says, such as built-in alarms or dials that light up with one push of a button (first popularized by Timex’s Indiglo)—in short, anything that will make their friends notice the watch, helping the teen wearer stand out. And of course, bigger is better.

For women

image“The big news is big,” says Jasmine Chang, executive fashion editor at O magazine. “Big” as in big watches, big faces. “Great for us far-sighted baby-boomers, and great for those of us who like the idea of an oversized men’s face watch with a bit more of a feminine appeal.” Says Megan LiVolsi,senior editor at International Wrist Watch magazine, “Big watches make a statement on the wrist. Women wear oversized men’s watches because they’re great attention-getters.” The market has caught up with that trend, creating big watches that are all “hers.”

Where did the bigness trend come from? Not from the weakening eyesight of boomer women, but from the workplace. Women on the job want more than a fashion accessory to go with a new outfit: they need a functional, reliable, easy-to-read timepiece. But until recently, many fashion watches were too small and completely useless at work. Tiny faces and dials with pale numerals may look pretty, but petite watches don’t allow for ease of use: most wearers found it a major challenge to make out the time at a glance. And so the big watch, with men’s styling or not, was a hit at work. From there it moved to sportier watches and even dressier ones.

Still, says Strandberg, “as watches are getting bigger and bigger, women still want their [small] dress watch.” So while big is getting bigger, small is getting smaller. At the Basel show, several brands showed stylish slender designs suitable for evening and other dressy occasions. And several high-end lines have introduced delicate feminine watches and smaller-scaled versions of existing watches.

Leather straps on women’s watches are making a comeback this fall, thanks to new colors, original designs and plenty of detail by way of top-stitching, perforated patterns, grommets and cut-outs. Sometimes the cutouts and other band designs repeat on the dial, as if the band were woven through the watch. Traditional black and brown are holding their own, but screaming bright blues and oranges are gaining. Watch designers are also using fabrics that are typically associated with clothing, such as suede or sueded fabric, sateen-leather, and washed denim.

Also popular are bracelet watches: link styles (two-tone metal is still strong); oversized ’80s bangles; and new charm bracelets. Watchbands with dangling charms are doing very well for What’s Your Line custom watches, says company president Marilyn Hume: “It’s fun when the watch jingles a little bit.”

For men

For most men, the watch is often the only jewelry they wear, other than a ring. “While some men will never wear a chain or a bracelet, watches are an accepted accessory across the board,” says Strandberg. Dress watches are still fairly traditional in shape and color. But for everyday, men tend to choose sporty watches they can wear almost anywhere: to work, on a hiking trip, mowing the lawn.

In either case, with an emphasis on masculinity and strength, big is better: some dials are now as large as 46mm. “Just when you thought oversized watches couldn’t get any bigger, the trend continues to grow,” Strandberg says. And as mentioned, the appeal of oversized men’s watches has extended to women, and to teen boys who wear them to project a macho adult look.

For sporty watches, the emphasis is also on advanced technology, large power reserves, high-depth water resistance, and other features. For example, Dakota Watch Company has watches with built-in flashlights, countdown timers, and vibrating alarms. (However, watches with these and other special features tend to be in the $200 price range.) Watchbands in a variety of materials ranging from leather to nylon to rubber are no longer just black, brown, gray or blue (which are still strong), but new shades like hunter green, hot orange and bright yellow.

New and notable in the men’s watch market isn’t a wristwatch but a clip-on. Clip-on watches are popular with anyone who wants the convenience of a wristwatch but doesn’t want to wear one (teens of both genders were among the first to glom onto them). Clip-ons for men are designed for active outdoors types to wear during sports and outdoor activities. These buyers “want something easy that they can attach to their backpack or fishing gear,” says Pelzel. Dakota Watch’s clip-ons, among the company’s best-selling watches, include advanced-tech features, and models like their “Angler” also have a compass and thermometer.

Timely gifts

For birthdays, graduations, promotions and other personal big moments, watches are perennial classic gifts. And they’re still top gift items for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and other “big” days. For weddings, housewarmings and new offices, clocks continue to be popular as traditional gifts. And Christmas, of course, is huge: sales peak during the holiday buying season, with some watch and clock retailers generating 50 percent of their annual revenue in December. Even so, consumers buy timepieces as gifts year-round: They’re available at a wide range of prices, they’re practical yet fashionable, they’re easy to carry or send, and in many cases they become cherished keepsakes.

Carts and kiosks featuring trendy watches can be life-savers for men who hate to shop during holidays or anytime. “Men want to go out, find the gift, and leave—not walk around the mall for hours looking for that special something,” says DiLeo. Liza Wrabel, who operates a watch kiosk at Lehigh Valley Mall (Whitehall, PA), says she definitely sees more men buying watches for women than the other way around. Women tend to spend a lot of time browsing through department stores and may see countless things before they get to a watch cart. Men make quick decisions, Wrabel says, whereas women spend a good deal of time choosing the “perfect” watch, only to say they “don’t know if I want to spend that much,” and walk away.

As special gifts, personalized watches take the lead. Hume says What’s Your Line Watches sells thousands of their personalized watches a year. Her line of customized, hand-decorated watches retailing at $39.95 really hits with two major demographics: middle-income women in their 40s, and 15- to 19-year-old girls. The company has watch designs that cover a wide assortment of hobbies, professions, holidays and special occasions. For example, there are teacher, hairdresser, and nurse watches; timepieces for pet lovers that feature the pooch’s or the kitty’s name hand-painted on the watch face; Halloween watches with glow-in-the-dark stars, and many more. “Christmas is really big for us, and people usually buy in multiples,” says Hume.

Retailers receive a few sample designs and a catalog with all the available custom choices. Need a special gift for Nana? What’s Your Line will fit up to eight names of grandchildren on the face of the watch. It takes Hume about 10 days to fill each order, so customers have don’t have to wait long to receive the personalized gift. (Those in a hurry can buy a generic, pre-made “puppy” or “schoolteacher” watch from the kiosk display.) Either way, people love them. “[They] get so attached to these watches,” says Hume. “We’ve serviced ones that were eight years old.”

While many timepieces are purchased as gifts, a large number of people buy their own watches. In Roper Report’s 2002 holiday-shopping survey, 47 percent said they planned to buy jewelry or accessories such as watches or wallets as holiday gifts; and 59 percent of women and 57 percent of men buy watches for themselves.

A little off the wall

Thanks to the real-estate boom, clocks haven’t suffered from the post-9/11 economic downturn as much as watches have. According to Business Trends Analysts, after a slight annual decrease in US sales from 1998-2001, consumption rose by 0.8 percent in 2001, reaching $757.9 million. Not only are clocks practical items for the home, they’re also still popular as house gifts. As thousands of new and older homes are bought each month, and remodeling and redecorating is at an all-time high, the potential for clock sales is increasing steadily.

Along with classic clock styles that are perennial favorites, manufacturers are also bringing out new designs to suit a variety of interior décor styles. Rustic, antique-looking clocks are selling, and so are classic “retro” looks, with 1950s styles gaining major momentum. Case in point: the retro clock in Todd Oldham’s HomeRoom line for Target.

Pixel Planet (New York City), which offers reproductions inspired by George Nelson’s designs, has two basic designs of retro wall clocks. The company has sold thousands of them at $29.95 in the four months they’ve been on the market. Garret Glaser, VP of marketing, says the success of the ’50s designs comes from the mid-century look going “beyond trend” and becoming a craze. “We’re not even selling a clock—we’re selling a decorative piece that tells the time,” he says. “We have retailers who don’t even specialize in clocks placing repeat orders because our clocks are such great gift items.” Glaser says clocks are great gifts for back-to-school, graduation or “first apartment,” and for anyone who doesn’t have $150 to spend on a classic clock but wants a unique look for their college dorm room or apartment.

People buy clocks mostly as decorative pieces rather than high-tech gadgets: “With so many houses going up now, people buy clocks to decorate their new homes. It’s a good trend,” says Randy Dieu, president of Sea Star (Los Angeles), a wholesaler of  traditional and innovative clocks. “When people buy a nice new house, they put the clock in the game room or near the bar—it’s a great conversation starter.” Dieu also saw what he calls a 1950s nostalgia trend. “A lot of everyday household items are now retro, and we have a large selection of mid-century-styled neon clocks,” he says, which are among the company’s best-selling items. “They’re great attention-grabbers.” In fact, Dieu says any gift shop and specialty retailer who offers clocks and watches should have a neon clock on display. “It will attract a lot of customers.”

For tech-savvy consumers, Sea Star offers MP3 alarm clocks ($39.95-$49.95) that let the user download favorite music from the Net and wake up to a different tune every morning. “Or you can record your own message, sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and send it to someone as a gift,” says Dieu. Radio-controlled clocks receive signals from their own control tower ($15-$50). “Thanks to new technology from Germany, you can forget about setting or resetting your clock—it will do that automatically,” he says. RC clocks are becoming popular with younger consumers, but their glory days are still to come.

A different kind of convenience comes in the form of an all-in-one table clock that also has a built-in phone, notepad and lamp. Increasingly popular with seniors, Sea-Star’s all-in-ones are in glossy silver or gold, and feature little figurines and an umbrella-shaped lampshade. The lamp, which has three settings, turns on or off when touched (no hard-to-find, hard-to-work switch), the phone has a built-in hands-free speaker, and the notepad is not only handy but won’t get lost. Dieu says their all-in-ones are selling very well.

Finally, not to be overlooked is the wall clock, still popular for its contribution to décor if not time-telling. As with wristwatches, wall clocks are getting larger, too. And design is all over the spectrum: futuristic and high-tech/industrial, bright retro, rustic, and vintage or antique styles.

Tick tock

Dieu says many retailers miss out by not offering new items. “Ask any retailer: ‘Do you carry radio-controlled watches?’ I’m sure they won’t have them.” For retailers who don’t want to order a whole line of new clocks or watches, he suggests having at least one or two in stock. “In today’s market, customers are asking a lot of questions, and they’ll buy from retailers who can answer them.”

So whether homey, high-tech or in between, “if the clock you’re selling has special features, make sure you show them off,” he says: many retailers don’t even bother putting batteries in to make the clocks tick and show real time. “If it lights up, make it light up. If it plays music, play a few songs.” And since demonstration is what keeps the merchandise moving, retailers must make an effort and “play” with the clock so that people come up and start asking questions. Once they do, you can demonstrate and sell it.

Even so, to some extent clocks and watches sell themselves. “The nice thing about [them] is that they’re real eye-catchers,” says DiLeo. “They stand out, and they’re bright.” So are the prospects for retailers who sell them.

Kasia Dawidowska

Dawidowska writes frequently for both trade and consumer magazines. She can be reached at .

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