Decade in Review: Surviving the Apple Watch / Buying Watches Online and the Rise of Preowned

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With the second decade of the 21st century in the rearview mirror, the Worn & Wound editorial team thought now would be a great opportunity to take a look back at some of the key trends in the watch world over the last ten years. It was a period of great change in the industry, with social media becoming more critical seemingly by the week, and traditional points of sale in high end retail stores giving way to direct sales to consumers on the internet. And, of course, the micro-brand began to come of age, creating a vibrant culture around watches unlike anything the hobby has seen. In this two-part series, Zach Weiss, Ilya Ryvin, and Zach Kazan explore the last decade in watches, and how the last ten years may inform the next.


The Apple Watch, and How the Watch Industry Survived It
Zach Kazan

The 2010s were always meant to be the decade that brought an existential dread to the watch industry. While “smart” watches existed before the last decade, the rapid adoption of smartphones and a growing desire among all of us to be constantly connected to the internet and each other led many to speculate that connected wrist devices would spell the end of the traditional watch industry.

While the smartwatch story is still being written, it’s fair to say that things haven’t quite turned out that way.

The Apple Watch, by many measures, is the most popular watch of all time in terms of sheer volume, and it’s certainly the most talked and written about watch to come along at least since the Swatch craze. They can be seen everywhere, from the gym, to the red carpet of the Academy Awards, to the wrists of many, I’m quite sure, who read this site and others like it every single day. And yet, as ubiquitous as the Apple Watch has become, the watch industry still shows signs of strength. While the Apple Watch has basically destroyed the inexpensive quartz fashion watch segment of the market, higher price point segments have been largely unaffected.  And the enthusiast culture, even around watches that are priced similarly to the Apple Watch, is strong, and seems to be getting stronger.

Apple Watch Series 4.
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What’s the reason for this, and does it have anything to do with the Apple Watch at all, or are we simply seeing a relationship between smart watches and traditional watches that isn’t really there? Some analysts, speculators, and collectors theorize that the Apple Watch got folks thinking about what we wear on our wrists again, and that the $500 – $1000 watch market was the beneficiary of a “rising tide lifts all boats” effect. There’s almost certainly some truth to that, but there are other layers to the story. 

Being a watch guy who also happens to be something of an Apple loyalist and general tech nerd type, I was eager to try the Apple Watch when it debuted in 2015, and sprung for the then quite extravagant stainless steel version. My impressions were immediately positive. The thing was well made, as all Apple devices tend to be, and even in its first generation was a cinch to use. Also, even in those early days, it was clear that the Apple Watch’s killer app was going to be its health and fitness tracking capabilities. They were rudimentary in 2015, counting steps, taking your heart rate, but have since become advanced to the point that the Apple Watch is sometimes credited with actually saving lives, through its built-in fall detection, or its medical grade EKG capabilities

These health features are great, but reveal that the Apple Watch, as a product, is about as similar to a mechanical watch as a blender, another common tool that has been rethought in recent years as a key to a healthier lifestyle. Ultimately, the growth of the watch industry that we saw in the micro-brand world happened completely independently from the Apple Watch, and for wildly different reasons, many of which were covered by Zach W. in the first part of this series.


My own experience with the Apple Watch was one that I’ve found, anecdotally, to be somewhat typical among watch enthusiasts who have dabbled with Apple’s wearable. For the activity tracking and fitness features to work effectively, you really have to commit to wearing the thing all the time, an idea that’s more than a little at odds with the lifestyle of collectors who like to switch up their timepieces on some kind of rotation, or just on a whim. Yes, some will choose to “double-wrist,” and others will reserve the Apple Watch for the gym. In my case, I just wanted to wear my other watches more, so to the second-hand market my Apple Watch went. 

All that said, if the Apple Watch has done nothing else in the five years since it has been on the scene, it has proven that without a doubt people are willing to wear devices that track not just their activity, but critical health details. The question, in the next 5 years, 10 years, and beyond, is: does the device people want to wear have to be a watch? Some similar wearable tech has proven to be popular, if not as culturally significant as the Apple Watch. And other wearable options exist outside of the watch realm that simply haven’t caught on in any widespread way just yet. Health and activity trackers certainly feel like something that will be baked into modern human life at some point, like cell phones, social networking, and streaming music, but I think the jury’s still out on whether that will happen on the wrist. A few decades from now, we may have forgotten that wearable tech was ever perceived as a threat to the watch industry at all. 

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Whatever happens in the next decade, there’s no denying that right now, at the start of the 2020s, the Apple Watch has become a giant force in tech, health, and, yes, the watch world. New releases of the Apple Watch are covered by watch journalists and websites like this one, and it’s a necessary piece of the conversation when discussing watches under $1,000. This small, aluminum (also, now, titanium) wearable is a behemoth, and a looming presence in the watch space. But it’s no longer something that seems threatening to the industry as a whole. For now, there’s peace between Cupertino and Switzerland.

Buying Watches Online and the Rise of the Preowned Market
Ilya Ryvin

It used to be that if you wanted to buy a watch, you’d walk into a trusted local AD, peruse through some glass displays while a salesperson offered his or her advice, haggled for a small discount you both knew was coming, and bam, you’d leave with your new, shiny watch on the wrist. A relatively pain-free process, and it’s not unavailable to consumers today (unless, of course, you’re looking to get a handful of stainless steel sport models from brands that shall not be named).

But that’s just one way consumers purchase watches today. Looking for a new watch? Go to your local AD. Or, if you don’t want to leave the comfort of home, go to their web store, and if they don’t have one, then go the web store of any AD that’s made online a priority. You can also hit up the brand’s own website and buy direct from the company. Don’t care if it’s new? Then jump on one of the many platforms dealing with preowned watches — Instagram, Reddit, eBay, the forums, Chrono24, etc. Want to make it a little more official? Go certified pre-owned. Hell, if you don’t care about a factory warranty, you can even go to the gray market. And that’s just scratching at the surface. Consumers today are savvier than ever, they do their due diligence before making a purchase, and they generally prefer to shop on their own terms.

Browsing on Watch Recon.

Rob Caplan, the proprietor of Topper Fine Jewelers in Burlingame, California, explains:

I feel like guests of our store now have much better better access to well thought out watch media than they did a decade ago. This means that even when a new customer walks in, strolls the watch counter and says, ‘I’m just looking,” more often than not they are already a serious enthusiast looking around the store.

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The marketplace for watches is ever-changing, continually growing, and yes, fragmenting. This fragmentation, however, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Other verticals have experienced similar trends as the Internet has become a more dominant force in the way consumers interact with, learn about, and purchase products. Just consider the major reshuffling of media, which has seen audiences splinter in numerous directions, and how that’s forced a tectonic shift in the landscape. In many ways, the watch industry is now facing similar challenges, though it is starting to adapt.

To get a better sense of why this is happening, it’s worth understanding how attitudes towards buying high-value items on the Internet have changed. According to research conducted by McKinsey & Company:

Online sales of personal luxury goods (accessories, apparel, beauty products and perfume, footwear, jewelry and watches, and leather goods) account for 8 percent of the €254 billion global luxury market. That’s about €20 billion—up fivefold from 2009—and we expect online luxury sales to more than triple by 2025, reaching about €74 billion (exhibit). Nearly one-fifth of personal luxury sales will take place online.

This is massive growth in a relatively short amount of time. But that’s not the entire story. According to the same report, McKinsey also explains that “nearly 80 percent of luxury sales today are “digitally influenced”: consumers hit one or more digital touchpoints in their luxury-shopping journeys.” In other words, consumers are influenced by what they interact with online, and because they’re increasingly comfortable with buying online, they go ahead and do it.

Rob Caplan brings the SF watch community into his store in Burlingame, offering an experience that goes beyond just traditional retail.

In response, some forward-thinking retailers have really focused on creating experiences that engage the watch community, both locally and at large, and in turn bring people into their stores.  Experiential retail may sound like a buzzword, but it’s got legs to stand on. Companies big and small have shifted to offering meaningful in-store experiences. Yoga classes at Lululemon. Rock climbing classes at REI. When done with authenticity, it can be a huge boon for a business.

Case in point — Rob Caplan’s approach with his shop. Rob explains:

Community development is a crucial element to us staying relevant. The role of the modern retail store has changed, and it can be more that just a place where products can be purchased. It can also be a space where collectors meet like-minded enthusiasts and get access to unique experiences. I’m genuinely proud of how the regular in-store events we host have evolved into a thriving community that fosters genuine friendships between watch enthusiasts, both new and old.

The watch industry isn’t entirely free of blame for the current state of affairs. Overproduction of goods has created a rather bloated marketplace, which often results in watches being pushed to bargain resellers and the gray market. This, in turn, has led to price shopping among consumers, and why wouldn’t it? If the retail for a watch is X, but one can buy it brand new elsewhere for 30% off X, then more often than not customers will go for the discount. To combat this, some retailers may try to match the price. This sort of thing ultimately devalues new watches, and, in turn, it can discourage knowledgable consumers from buying new, because why buy new if the purchase is immediately devalued once it’s in your wrist. This has helped give rise to a booming secondhand/pre-owned market.

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StockX, the go-to spot for sneakers, has gotten into the pre-owned market.

Who are some of the players. There’s WatchBox, Chronext, Chrono24, and Crown & Caliber. StockX, the go-to place for sneakerheads, launched a watch division, adapting their successful model for selling sneakers to selling watches. And then there’s Watchfinder, which was famously purchased by Richemont in 2018. That same year, it was estimated that the pre-owned market was almost a quarter of the overall watch market, and growing rapidly. There are also other, less official channels for buying pre-owned watches. Like I wrote above, you have eBay, the forums, Reddit, Instagram, aggregators like WatchRecon that bring many of these together in a single handy app, etc. And remember Rob Caplan, the head honcho at Topper? He runs a successful pre-owned section on his website, and the watches move.

It’ll be interesting to see how watch buying trends change in the new decade. Things evolve, and some things that were long-deemed dead are making a comeback again in reimagined forms, so I think it’s really anyone’s guess. That said, I imagine the preowned market will continue to grow, and if I can say anything with certainty, consumers will only become more informed, not less. Whatever the future of buying and selling watches is, it’s going to have to account for that.

This is the house account for Worn & Wound. We use it on general articles about us, the site and our products.
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