December 16, 2012

Hands of time still on our wrists

Fewer people wear watches since the advent of time-tracking smart devices, yet they continue to sell.

By RICK MONTGOMERY McClatchy Newspapers

It showed 12:17 p.m. on all of the timepieces carried by students and young workers taking a break around a coffee table at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan.

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For millions, the phone represents the return of the pocket watch, the preferred time-telling tool before World War I. Some apps display the time with Roman numerals on a clock face, a second hand and even ticking noises on command.

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Travis Pinks checked both screens of his smartphone: "12:17 p.m." And so it appeared on Johnny Stiles' laptop screen, on Sara Humphreys' iPod Touch, on Garrett Rotert's cellphone.

It should not surprise that only one of the four of them, Humphreys, 21, wore a watch -- mostly because of how it sparkled on her wrist. After all, that has been the trend in recent years.

And none around the coffee table, when asked for the time, said "a quarter after 12." Nobody said "about 20 past noon."

It was 12:17 p.m.

"The magic of satellites," Pinks noted.

That ratio of just one wristwatch-wearer for every four people held up in a perusal of the lunchtime crowd at the JCCC Student Center. It also holds close to national market-research data on the millennial generation.

Most adults in their early 30s or younger don't wear a watch on a regular basis.

Strangely, these watch-tossing trends seem to be showing up everywhere but at the cash register.

Wristwatch buying -- that time-honored staple of the holiday shopping season -- appeared to be on a fateful slump six or seven years ago, about the same time cultural pundits began to forecast how cellphone clocks would render the watch obsolete.

But in the past three years, sales have recovered for moderately priced watches that speak more to fashion than timekeeping. And the fortunes have surged, sometimes by triple-digit percentages, for certain luxury brands selling for thousands of dollars, said Andrew Talbert of the market monitoring firm LGI Network.

"That's the rich getting richer" and buying a better Rolex even in lean times for most folks, Talbert reasoned. "We're not in the business to understand or ask why. We just track the sales."

Stiles, 32, of Shawnee, Kan., isn't buying even a basic Timex anytime soon.

"Haven't had a watch since before I joined the Army, what -- 12 years ago?" Stiles said.

"I see a wristwatch as formal attire ... a status symbol. On my (electronic) devices, I've got a whole calendar -- no need to strap on a watch."

For some, the wristband pinches. The crystal gets scuffed; the calendar date wanders off. The mainspring snaps, or the battery goes dead.

One 19-year-old diner at the Student Center in Overland Park feared that if she wore a bulky watch at the day care center where she worked, it might pose a liability when she moved her arms a certain way. No timepiece is worth a welt on a youngster, she said.

"I've gotten two watches as gifts -- they're terrific watches -- and I haven't worn either in months," echoed student Roman Permyakov, 21. "With the new Google glasses that are about to come out, why bother? You'll be able to see everything you need right in front of your eyes."

So at least two schools of thought compete in the 21st-century world of watches: the consumers who couldn't be without, and those who couldn't care less.

"I've taken 100 phone calls, at least, on this topic of cellphones and the demise of the watchmaker," said Jim Lubic of the trade group known as the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute. "Among younger people, yes, you're seeing fewer wear watches on a regular basis. They'll just keep a cellphone to tell time through college.

"But once they hit their 30s and find their career path, they'll get a watch as a status symbol."

True enough, the Jewelers of America said that "fine watches" continue to hang on to about 13 percent of the jewelry market, as it has been in recent years, and that overall sales of watches ticked up 3.5 percent this summer from a year earlier.

Looming over future sales are those bare-wristed millennials: Less than a third of Americans ages 18 to 29 report wearing a watch at least most of the time, according to surveys by YPulse, a market researcher.

The most commonly cited reason? "It's unnecessary ... since I always look at my phone to know the time."

Still, more than one-quarter of young adults tell YPulse they will sport wristwatches from time to time as fashion accessories.

That means they'll buy, then buy again, but the watches on most days stay on the dresser while the cellphone goes everywhere.

For millions, the phone represents the return of the pocket watch, the preferred time-telling tool before World War I. Any number of apps can display the time as if it is a pocket watch, with Roman numerals on a clock face, a second hand and even ticking noises on command.

With dozens of GPS satellites overhead talking to a network of cell-tower receivers on the ground, telecommunications companies such as Sprint Nextel can "have all times synchronized precisely to the micro-second," Sprint manager Ben Bellinder said. "We call it network time."

The network even knows when you cross time zones.

Some of the world's largest electronics manufacturers have begun to blend such technology with wristwatch fashion. For about $150 retail, Sony's SmartWatch slaps around your wrist a 2-inch-square screen that channels the Android phone in your pocket. You can check the time and read emails and texts without reaching for a mobile device.

Omega is plastering images from the new James Bond flick, "Skyfall," on its website. That's actor Daniel Craig sporting an Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean, priced at $10,000 and beyond. (Until the mid-1990s, the Bond character was a Rolex man.)

Omega is part of the Swatch Group, owner of 19 high-end brands, which in July posted double-digit growth in gross sales and operating profit for the second straight year.


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Additional Photos

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Jules Borel & Co. in Kansas City does a big business in watch repair.

McClatchy Newspapers


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