Wearable technology has become a buzzword among marketers, consumers and well-being gurus. CCS Insight projects that the wearables market will grow to $34 billion by 2020.
But what exactly is wearable technology? The devices now flooding the market offer varied functionality – from activity tracking to mobile connectivity to medical monitoring. The Fitbit tracker, Apple smartwatch, Tambour Horizon smartwatch by Louis Vuitton and Sano’s glucose monitoring patch are all, technically, wearable technology. We are also seeing new products and vendors entering the wearable technology market, including fashion icons like Fossil along with their sub-brands and emerging companies like BBK and Li-Ning, that tap into niche segments of the wearables market. Fossil sells a luxury/fashion device, while BBK focuses on child-monitoring devices, and Li-Ning offers step-counting shoes.
As my own research with colleagues in the United Kingdom has found, shoppers struggle a bit to make sense out of this wearable avalanche. Our brains love to categorize new objects, preferably with a label that we’ve already applied to other things in the past. Just as we stereotype people, once we put a product into a category it’s very difficult for us to move it out of that niche. That means we apply the criteria we use to judge other members of that category to the new item. So that first impression is crucial – and in this case many consumers find themselves at a crossroads: For example, is this device on my wrist first and foremost a piece of jewelry or a computer? Depending upon how a shopper answers that question, the entire product evaluation process may look quite different. He or she will either compare that Louis Vuitton smartwatch to other high-end luxury watches or to other fitness trackers. Very few wearables out there can win both of these competitions.
While they offer a variety of capabilities, what unites most wearable technology products is that they use sensors makers embedded into everyday products like a watch, shoe, headband or necklace. This explains why apparel and footwear companies as well as tech brands are interested in this new hybrid category. Fashion designers like Tory Burch and Swarovski now offer wearable technology accessories that integrate with major activity trackers. For example, the Louis Vuitton Tambour watch includes a proprietary app linked to the Louis Vuitton city guides. The watch will know where you are at what time and can recommend the best nearby restaurant or bar or shop in seven world capitals.
Industry analysts predict that apparel fitted with intelligent agent technology is where the greatest opportunities lie for the wearable technology market. Smart clothing is just starting to emerge as a significant market entity. Now, companies like Samsung, Google, OMSignal, Hexo Skin and Under Armour are looking into ways to makes apparel as smart as smartphones. Since most wearable technology products are fitness-focused, smart clothing so far has followed in those footsteps with incredibly accurate fitness metrics.
Wearable technology is starting to focus a bit more on style, as well. For example, OMSignal offers fun smart sports bra patterns and color options, while Samsung’s recent wearable technology prototypes include a belt that lets you know when you’re gaining weight (ouch!) and a golf shirt that tracks swings. They provide the tech, but they don’t look like tech. Again, shoppers may find themselves in confusing territory: “Am I wearing a fitness garment or fashionable streetwear?”
Accenture’s Digital Consumer Tech Survey canvassed people in six countries to assess consumers’ receptivity to wearable technology. More than half of the people surveyed (52%) were interested in buying devices like fitness monitors to track physical activity and manage personal health. They’re also interested in smartwatches (46%) and internet-connected glasses. A U.S. survey found that 25% would wear sensors on their wrists, or clipped to their clothes. And some went further still. A full 15% said they’d embed technology into their clothing, while 4% would wear smart contact lenses, and 3% would even have sensors tattooed onto their skin – but only if they thought they’d see enough benefits from doing so.
An important challenge for marketers of wearable technology is that the repurposing of everyday products makes it difficult to differentiate and position these devices. Wearables that serve mainly one purpose, such as an activity tracking device, have different design and positioning needs than those that offer multiple functions, like a smartwatch. Does a Tory Burch Fitbit Flex belong in the activity trackers section of a store or website, or should it be nestled among other attractive bracelets in the jewelry department? Merchandisers haven’t quite figured that out yet.
Although these devices are tech-centered, style still plays an important role for many consumers. They seek beauty, status and peer approval from wearable technology, just as with anything else they display on their bodies. Understanding how people categorize these products is increasingly important. Is a computer-enhanced bracelet primarily a functional device, or an accessory that happens to provide some form of feedback to the wearer? If the product is visible to observers, people are likely to think about it as a piece of jewelry first and as tech second.
Plus, a stylish appearance might make people more forgiving if the technology doesn’t perform as expected. A 2016 IDC survey found that Americans who planned to buy a wearable in the following six months said retailers needed to put a major focus on aesthetics rather than just technical features. One analyst commented that vendors “…have not yet cracked the code to deliver something that is both functional and fashionable. Companies clearly need to focus on the aesthetics of their product – perhaps more so than the features.”
The forecast is mostly sunny for the emerging wearable technology market – but vendors need to pay close attention to a few storm clouds that lurk on the horizon:
- If the wearable technology product is visible to observers, shoppers are likely to think about it as a piece of jewelry. More attention to aesthetics might make users more prone to forgiveness if the technology doesn’t perform as well as they expect.
- Companies can adjust promotional materials and retail settings to the growing needs for wearable technology and emphasize how compatible the item will be with the user’s daily routines, such as exercising. For example, Lord and Taylor partneredwith Bobbi Brown to open the JustBobbi concept store within the department store that offers a variety of wellness and beauty products as well as apparel and accessories. This concept is somewhat similar to IKEA’s practice of displaying multiple categories of merchandise to create a fully furnished room.
- Luxury and non/luxury customers have different needs when they evaluate wearable technology. Luxury shoppers want exclusivity and “snob appeal.” Others are more likely to value stylistic currency and versatility, such as the ability to change colors and designs to coordinate with wardrobe choices.
- Multifunctional wearables can build on the idea that the user actually has “multiple selves” and different parts of her life demand different functionality as she moves from the office to the yoga studio to the kitchen.
Wearable technology products are here to stay – at least until chip implants usher in a new age of intimate computing. But it’s about much more than exciting new technology. Marketers and designers need to be mindful that most shoppers don’t want to lug around a computer on their wrists, torsos or necks. At the end of the day, it’s not just how well you live, but also how you look while doing it.
My latest book is Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! Liberating the Postmodern Consumer.
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Forbes June 21, 2018
Michael Solomon, Ph.D.