Several factors hurt the watch business in 2016.
The Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FHS) has released its final results for 2016, and, as expected, they were pretty grim, with overall sales falling 9.9 percent, the worst drop since the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2009, when sales plummeted 22 percent.
After 2009, the market made a “V-shape recovery,” a four-year boom that quickly made up for lost ground and then some. But that boom has now fizzled for a number of reasons :
– Asia. China’s anti-corruption boom put a huge crimp in watch sales, as did the general malaise in the Asian economy. All this can be seen in the FHS figures, with exports to Hong Kong and China registering strong drops throughout the year.
Once that happened, manufacturers were left with a product glut, due in part—small watchmakers argue—to the big publicly traded watchmakers trying to please their shareholders, as well as by the need for watchmakers to set production schedules two or three years in advance.
Manufacturers have since bought back some of that oversupply, though some of it undoubtedly ended up in…
– The gray market. This is something that isn’t always talked about openly, but it’s hard to ignore that Jomashop has become a major player in the watch business (estimated 2014 sales: $140.7 million). Amazon, which boasted about its holiday watch sales, is also now selling “warranty-free” timepieces. We’re hearing a lot more retailers gripe about online competition, with many believing that the big watchmakers now wink at the gray market as a good way to clear the pipeline.
Even though this was a generally good year for the U.S. economy, watch exports to America also fell, and the gray market was likely one reason why.
– Smartwatches. This is also something that many in the watch business tend to either not talk about openly or dismiss. The Apple Watch hasn’t yet reached iPhone-level ubiquity (the company won’t release stats) and, given mixed user reviews, it may never. The tech giant has also seemingly given up on the high-end market. Still, in the last few months, I have seen Apple Watches on a lot more wrists, and Apple is now (by its reckoning) the second-biggest watch seller in the world, behind Rolex. You can read plenty of arguments why smartwatches will or will not damage traditional watch sales, but it’s hard to believe this new category has not had some effect on the industry, when it was at a particularly vulnerable moment.