The ubiquity of smartphones and their use for all manner of everyday purposes has undermined demand for traditional timepieces. As a result, timepieces are increasingly purchased for their decorative and symbolic properties rather than for timekeeping.
With the functional, timekeeping role of traditional timepieces diminishing in importance, aficionados and those with an interest in the technical designs of watches are coming to constitute an increasingly large proportion of the consumer base. However, the symbolic function of traditional products continues to be supported by the custom of brides and grooms exchanging watches as wedding gifts, with luxury brands featuring prominently in this tradition.
Because of the increasingly symbolic function of traditional timepieces, luxury products are proving more resilient to the emergence of electronic devices than standard alternatives. The role of watches as status symbols is particularly prominent amongst male consumers, for whom there is a limited choice of accessories compared with their female counterparts.
With smartwatches representing an increasingly prominent threat to traditional timepieces, manufacturers of luxury timepieces are looking to leverage the strength of their brands in the category. Boutique brand, Montblanc, launched its first smart watch, Summit, in 2017, and flowed this with the introduction of Summit 2 in October 2018.
While luxury players are looking to develop a presence in smartwatches, luxury timepieces’ core consumer base is not immediately drawn to smartwatches, favouring an image founded on heritage and a classic aesthetic. However, the fact that this consumer base is comprised largely of older consumers while younger people are the key consumers for smartwatches represents a long-term threat to traditional timepieces unless manufacturers can develop their brand images in line with the preferences of younger consumers.
Rolex retained the lead in luxury timepieces in 2017, benefiting from a strong brand image founded on the reputation of Swiss-made timekeeping products. However, in common with all of the top seven manufacturers, Rolex experienced a decline in value share between 2015 and 2017, as smaller players tapped into the shift in the character of demand in luxury timepieces from functionality towards symbolism and status.
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