Let’s face it. Smartwatches haven’t done as well as we all thought they would. Or rather, people haven’t taken them up as quickly as we thought they would. Sales of the much anticipated Apple Watch are undisclosed, presumably due to not meeting Apple’s internal expectations, and general smartwatch sales figures are fuzzy. Figures from Gartner suggest that Global sales reached 30m units in 2015 which is quite a bit less compared with tablet sales back in 2011 at 60m units.

It seems like we’re a bit stuck on the early stages of the tech adoption curve for smartwatches. In the meantime, however, we’ve noticed a quiet but steady sales rise amongst smartwatches’ closest relatives – the fitness trackers. Gartner figures suggest that sales of fitness wearables (combining wristbands, smart garments, chest straps, sports watches and other fitness monitors) were at 85m in 2015. And they’re still growing.

Shouldn’t have smartwatches cannibalised fitness trackers already? They are an all-round more capable product. They track activity and fitness just like fitness trackers do, they have a wider range of features, are typically more powerful and often better looking. But despite all this, there is a noticeable lack of excitement amongst the general consumer for the much-hyped tech category.

At Morar we set out to discover why…

1 – They’re seen as too expensive

In a survey of 1,000 UK consumers*, over a third (38%) haven’t considered a smartwatch simply because it’s too expensive. Where fitness trackers are priced very accessibly at around £50 at the entry-level, the most basic Apple Watch is already priced in excess of £250.

This obviously doesn’t tell the full story – premium pricing didn’t stop the sales of millions of iPhones and iPads. Smartwatches aren’t seen to just be expensive, but unnecessarily so. Which leads to our second point…

2 – They’re seen as unnecessary

Early smartwatch and Apple Watch comms has focused on promoting a wide range of features and functionality. But this may have hindered rather than helped the cause.

Almost half of consumers who have not yet bought a smartwatch have actively excluded themselves as a target audience – 46% say ‘it’s just not for me’. When asked to comment they mainly expressed confusion over why you’d need something that your phone can already do. Clearly, the benefits of smartwatch ownership have not cut through to consumers.

3 – They do not yet promote a desirable ‘personal image’

The wristwatch is today, as it has been in history, an incredibly personal item. Much more so than a mobile phone which is detached from us, the watch is part of us and our personal identity.

The watch you wear says something about you. That you’re wealthy or artistic or active or professional or accomplished or creative or stylish or casual. A Rolex watch is not just a watch. When a person wears that watch they become part of some unspoken, unofficial yet very real and exclusive club. A Mondaine is inspired by minimal Bauhaus design and suggests that its wearer appreciates that style.

Similarly, you could argue that when you strap on a fitness tracker band, you too are becoming part of the aspirational / active / motivational / healthy / fitness club. Not something to be ashamed of, but to be admired. It in some way enhances your personal image.

But can we say the same for the smartwatch? Not quite, not yet.

Today, a quarter of consumers** (25%) would actually have a negative first impression of a person who is wearing a smartwatch. Since it’s still seen as an expensive and unnecessary device by many, people who have them are sometimes perceived negatively as show offs, tech obsessed or with too much money to waste.

Even those who are relatively neutral about it associate the device more for tech and gadget lovers, fitness freaks or really busy professionals. Not necessarily a club the mass market would aspire towards or consider themselves a part of.

4 – Maybe people aren’t quite ready for the smartwatch

What we have to remember is the iPhone was an evolution of the mobile phone. It came after a long line of other devices. From hefty brick phones with pull out antennae to flip phones to camera phones to QWERTY phones to the all-touch smartphone we know today.

We looked to smartwatches as the next iPhone in consumer technology innovation. But it turns out that wearable technology is a totally different game. It’s personal, it’s literally attached to us and it’s a big part of our identity. What’s more, we haven’t had an introduction to smartwatches yet. We’ve gone straight in with the iPhone when people are still looking for the flip phone.

The future of wearables

Positively, we can see from the success of fitness trackers that people are not averse to intelligent wearable technology. And even the smartwatch in its current form has a place amongst the tech enthusiasts and early adopters of this world. But there’s evidence to suggest that more work needs to be done to make wearables, and particularly smartwatches, appealing to mainstream audiences.

Those in the tech and wearables space should consider prioritising the execution of design, image and form rather than taking the feature-first approach of many smartwatches today. They should explore the potential of wearables with subtle, powerful intelligence rather than those that try to be all things to all people.

Meanwhile, we’ll keep waiting patiently for the next big thing.  

- By Adelynne Chao

*Morar’s nationally representative survey omnibus, August 2016

**Derived from coded sentiment from open text comments