A report by Strategy Analytics reveals that during 2019, Apple Watch sold more units than the entire Swiss watch industry: Apple shifted 30.7 million units, up 36% from the 22.5 million it sold in 2018, while the Swiss watch industry as a whole managed just 21.1 million watches, a decline of 13%.
In 2015, the year the Apple Watch was launched, LVMH watch division president and Tag Heuer CEO Jean-Claude Biver said the Swiss industry was not afraid of Apple’s new product, because it could not be repaired in a thousand years or eighty years, nor inherited by children, nor would it ever become a status symbol. As is always the case when disruption occurs in an industry, traditional competitors are not able to see the threat, and continue to try to analyze it according to the variables that were important yesterday.
Later that year, I discussed technology substitution in the watch sector. In May 2017, I pointed out that three years of growing sales of smartwatches and a consecutive drop in exports by the Swiss watch industry represented an unprecedented crisis, one that heralded its demise, consigning it to the past and that while it would retain its followers, they would be a residual market. As I said at the time, when disruption hits, hoping that the inertia of tradition, style and other intangibles will save the bottom line won’t cut it.
Apple’s reinvention of the wristwatch is not only evident in its impressive sales figures: it can be seen by analyzing its usage dynamics. When somebody acquires an Apple Watch, they typically tell themselves they will wear it sometimes, but remain faithful to their favorite traditional watch. After all, the Swiss industry has been trying for years to get us to see watches as a fashion accessory or collectable. For many watch enthusiasts, a Swiss watch was a powerful status symbol.
But once you have tasted the apple, you’re lost. Experience shows that the Apple Watch is more than something that tells the time, and is instead receives notifications, evaluates your physical activity, shows the weather forecast, tells you if your team has won, and a myriad other things, including whether you are suffering from an arrhythmia. As soon as you start using the Apple Watch, you realize one thing is clear: the rest of your watch collection will live on in a drawer from now on.
And every time you’re tempted to take them out and use them instead of the Apple device, you spend the whole day looking at your wrist for information that isn’t there. Your wristwatch, that status symbol, with all its technical complexity, has become obsolete. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, don’t worry: it’s just a matter of time. The Apple Watch is simply another kind of product: a reinvention of the watch for the digital environment.
Over the coming years, as we notice the number of people around us wearing an Apple Watch, we’ll still observe those hopeless nostalgics with their air of superiority, showing off an expensive Swiss timepiece. But they too will grow up, exclusive members of a shrinking market. In the meantime, successive generations of smartwatches will provide increasingly attractive features, watching over our health, overcoming the limitations of previous versions, and winning over more and more people.
If you still don’t believe it, if you think that the sales figures are just a blip or you think that the Swiss watch industry is in a bunker in the Alps planning its revenge… don’t worry, it will pass in time. You’ll get tired of waiting.