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Wristwatches Get the Back of the Hand

The Nation

Young consumers tend to see the time-honored timepiece as irrelevant. The up-to-the-minute accessory now is the ubiquitous cellphone.

April 16, 2006|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Is time running out for the wristwatch?

Surveys and sales data show that young shoppers are shunning watches for snazzier time-telling gadgets, such as cellphones and iPods.

Last year, the number of people who bought watches not in the Rolex and Patek Philippe stratosphere dropped 12% from 2004, according to a leading market research group. The runaway favorite brand for teens, Fossil Inc. of Texas, acknowledged an 18.6% decline in wholesale U.S. sales of its namesake brand.

Oakley Inc., which is based in Orange County, said watch sales fell 11% last year as it phased out digital watches and styles that weren't selling well.

For many in the cellphone generation, watches now seem about as relevant as grandfather clocks. Bare wrists were plentiful last week at the Lab, a Costa Mesa shopping center that caters to teens and young adults. Shoppers dived into purses or pockets to retrieve cellphones when a reporter casually asked the time.

You don't wear a watch?

What's the point? they answered.

"It's like a hat," said Francis Eagan, a 21-year-old waiter from Tustin. "It serves no purpose, like earrings."

Kamlyn Snyder said she hadn't worn a watch since she plucked one from a cereal box many years ago.

"The inconvenience of strapping it on in the morning," said the 21-year-old student from Huntington Beach, a pink bow tattooed on her right foot. "My grandma does; that's how she tells time. She's not that old. She's, like, 60, but still .... "

Many older people too would make the cellphone their primary timepiece if it didn't mean digging around for their reading glasses, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, which tracks consumer trends.

"Once the cellphone manufacturers recognize that not everybody has X-ray vision, they'll begin to make the cellphone clock a little bit bigger and it will very quickly replace the fashion watch as the No. 1 timepiece," he said.

Cohen began polling consumers about watches after he realized that he had stopped wearing one a couple of years ago.

His conclusions were corroborated by the Piper Jaffray investment bank, which produces a semiannual report on teen preferences. In the latest study, teenagers who said they never wore a watch rose to 59% from 48%. The number of teens who said they wore a watch daily declined to 13% in this spring's survey, compared with 18% of those polled in the fall.

And 82% said they didn't plan to buy a watch in the next six months, compared with 76% last fall.

"Some people just buy nice watches to be cool," said skateboarder Hayden Navarro at the Camp, an outdoor-themed shopping center in Costa Mesa. "That's a dumb reason to buy a watch."

Hair flipping up from under a striped beanie, Navarro sat on his skateboard and described how he props up his watch in his bedroom and uses it as a clock.

Attitudes like that might make watchmakers yearn to turn back the clock.

The dismal poll results caused Piper Jaffray to maintain its "neutral-to-cautious stance" on Fossil's stock.

"No matter how you sliced the data, it looked incrementally worse for the fashion watch industry when catering to teens," said Neely J.N. Tamminga, one of the report's authors. "The punch line for us is, clearly, the teens are using other means to tell time."

When another group, Teen Research Unlimited in Illinois, asked teens how they use their cellphones, 87% said to tell time, said Rob Callender, the group's trends director.

"The watch turns into something that's completely incidental to their lives," he said.

The vast majority of people still use wristwatches to tell time, and few people expect the device to end up on the endangered accessories list. But many think they'll be linked more to status and fashion than to function.

"People usually don't buy a Rolex just to tell time," said Nitin Gupta an analyst with the Yankee Group research firm.

Cohen, the NPD analyst, said his research showed that the number of people buying watches that cost more than $1,000 -- such brands as Rolex, Breguet and Patek Philippe, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars -- dipped 2% last year.

But the Swiss, who are not expected to be neutral on this topic, said they didn't think that time was ticking on the industry.

Swiss watchmaker Swatch Group, with 19 watch companies including Longines and Omega, called 2005 "a banner year" for its business, including its machine-washable Swatch Flik Flak for children.

But cellphones have other advantages over the watch, including automatic time-zone changes. Many people use their cells as alarm clocks and calculators. Some even watch TV on them. You can't do that with your watch -- unless you're Dick Tracy.

Of course, watch batteries last longer. And, in some ways, watches are more durable. You can't go surfing with your cellphone.

At least not yet.

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