Wearables Are the Next Big Thing—But Who’s Buying?

Despite widespread consumer apathy, the category is set to explode

Today I hosted an impromptu poll on my Facebook feed, asking several hundred of my closest “friends” to share their thoughts on a single question: “If you were given a wearable watch or piece of smart jewelry, would you wear it/use it?” 

The answers varied from rapidly fired “nos” (“I don’t need to be connected all the time,” said Dupont, Wash.–based Abbie Gale) to the enthusiastic: “I would love it. Give me one!” chirped Monica Keller, a marketing executive based in Silver Spring, Md.

But the bulk of the responses echo that of Hartford, Conn.–based makeup artist Erica Martell’s: “If it looked good, yes!” 

Lauren Ober, a radio producer based in Washington, D.C., chimed in that she wouldn’t be interested in a wearable “unless it looked exactly like any of the other watches I wear. I don’t want it to look like I’m wearing a digital watch all the time.”

Claire Brown, a teacher based in North Port, Fla., said the wearables she’s seen are “too bulky—I have enough bulky in my life. But I would make an exception for a super secret spy ring or something cool like that.”

Jen Cullen Williams, managing director of Luxury Brand Group, noted that if the style of the wearable “was sleek and gold, and would fit with my other jewelry, I’d be 100 percent into it. Currently, the wearable technology is too sporty for my taste.”

When it comes to wearables, superb functionality may be enough to reel in marathon runners. But their road to mass appeal will surely be paved in sophisticated, delightful design. Because let’s be real—nonmedical wearable devices are, at this point, value-added toys circling our already tech-packed lives.

Beyond collecting data about your vitals, there is no incentive to strapping on a watch that resembles a rubber heart monitor from the ’70s.

But no matter. Even if high-design wearables don’t become the norm—and fitness-focused devices from sporty brands such as Fitbit and Garmin end up ruling the market—wearables sales are expected to grow exponentially over the next decade. 

A study by research firm Gartner released today predicted that 274.6 million wearable electronic devices are expected to generate $28.7 billion in revenue this year. It further forecasted that the market is expected to grow to 322.69 million wearable electronic devices in 2017, up from 232.01 million units in 2015.  

But exactly who will be snapping up these millions of units? The nascent market has been very inclusive—luring teens and 60-somethings alike. But I’m not the only tech reporter who’s noticed that, at least anecdotally, the interest in wearables among consumers is tepid, and the rate of device owners who end up abandoning their wearable before a year is up is sky-high.

But here’s some hard data: In its annual Wearables Report, released last year, NPD Group found that 36 percent of fitness-tracker owners in the U.S. were 35–54 years old, 41 percent had an average income of more than $100,000, and 54 percent were women. At that point, “one in ten U.S. adults now own a fitness tracker.”

Smartwatches were more popular with younger consumers: “More than two-thirds (69 percent) of smartwatch owners are 18–34 years old, skew mostly toward the male population (71 percent), and nearly half (48 percent) had an income below $45,000,” read the report.

The demographics have likely shifted since that report was released and will continue to evolve as more developers get on the good-design bandwagon and tech innovations take root.

Smart devices that don’t need to connect to smartphones via Bluetooth to work, an innovation that will likely become an industry standard in the coming years, is just one example of an often-mentioned purchase barrier that’s poised to vanish into thin air.

Others will surely follow—knocked out by developers dead set on making their tiny toys a big part of our daily lives. 

(Photo courtesy of Android Wear)

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