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In Cell Era, Timepieces Are Fashion Trend To Watch

Apr 30, 2012
Originally published on April 30, 2012 3:34 pm

Cellphones were once simple tools for making calls on the go. But the phones have quickly become all-purpose devices, used to send email, read articles, find restaurants — and tell time.

And as more people carry that tool in their pocket or purse, fewer are relying on wristwatches to keep on schedule.

Monica Espitia is one of them. "Since I've had a cellphone, I pretty much stopped wearing watches," she says. "Until I went on vacation and I didn't know what time it was."

Now, it's after 5 p.m. in Manhattan's busy SoHo shopping district, and Espitia is rushing to find a watch. With a trip to Bali approaching, she says she's realized it's time to break down and buy a watch again — her first such purchase in 10 years.

Espitia is not alone in sporting a bare wrist. Watch purchases have been falling for years. According to consumer research firm Experian Simmons, only 42 million Americans bought a watch for themselves in 2011, down from 55 million in 2004.

Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of American adults now own a cellphone.

But the watch industry isn't dying. Some retailers are actually stocking shelves with more of them.

In any American Apparel retail store, shoppers will find rows and rows of watches tucked among pastel-colored sweatshirts and boyfriend shorts. One Manhattan store boasts at least five different displays of watches: prim and simple, gold and bold — even Casio calculator watches.

Craving Nostalgia

The retail chain didn't even start selling watches until just a few years ago. But the company, which has struggled in recent years, was willing to experiment. So American Apparel found some colorful novelty watches that were popular decades ago, and tested selling them.

"People flipped out when they saw them," says creative director Marsha Brady. The company quickly realized its tech-crazy customers were craving a sense of nostalgia, and were eager to snap up watches that remind them of styles from their childhood.

"One of the most popular things we hear when people are looking at the watches is, 'Oh my god! I used to have that watch!' " Brady says. "I think that's what draws people in initially. Vintage is a really big part of our aesthetic."

American Apparel has since scoured the country for watch styles no longer in production. The company sold 84,000 watches in 2011 — the same year the iPhone released its latest model. Brady says the retailer projects sales will climb 30 percent this year over last.

Max Kilger, an analyst for Experian Simmons, says savvy retailers are finding there's still a market for watches — if they approach consumers the right way.

"With the increase in smartphone usage, it's caused the watch industry to ... shift away from utilitarian watches towards more fashion statement watches," he says.

In other words, people — even young people — are still buying watches — just not to tell time. They're instead using the timepieces to project their tastes, be it classic, retro or street style.

Watches have always been considered statement pieces in the luxury market, and today, that market is booming, too. Auction house Sotheby's made its second-highest watch sale ever in April — nearly $13 million.

Back at American Apparel, 21-year-old fashion student Taylor Trentini says she always wears her big, gold-plated watch. "It's very much a fashion thing for me, but now it's a habit," she says. "If I'm not wearing it, I feel lost."

And she even uses it to check the time, once in a while.

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For millions of people, it's hard to imagine life without a smartphone, one that let's you call friends, search the Web and to know the time of day. Having a phone in the palm of your hand means, among other things, less need to look at your wrist to see if you're running late.

But Kaomi Goetz reports that the watch isn't dying, it's adapting.

KAOMI GOETZ, BYLINE: It's after five in Manhattan's busy SoHo shopping district. Monica Espitia is in a rush, looking for a watch. It's unusual because the 38-year-old never wears one.

MONICA ESPITIA: To be honest with you, it's been years. Probably 10 years. Since I've had a cell phone, I pretty much stopped wearing watches. And I just realized, last time I was on vacation and I didn't know what time it was.

GOETZ: Espitia's upcoming trip top Bali is the only reason she's breaking down now. And she's not been alone in having a bare wrist. Since 2005, the number of people buying watches has declined by millions. Meanwhile, nearly every adult has now acquired a cell phone, about 92 percent, according to research firm Experian Simmons.

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GOETZ: Yet, walk into any American Apparel retail store, there alongside pastel-colored hoodies and boyfriend shorts, are rows and rows of watches - Casio calculator-style, prim and simple or gold and bold. At one store on the Lower East Side there are at least five different displays.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This small face is a simple one with a black band. It's really popular.

GOETZ: Up until a few years ago, American Apparel didn't even sell watches. But the struggled in recent years and was willing to experiment. So they tested with a few colorful novelty watches from decades ago.

MARSHA BRADY: People flipped out when they saw them.

GOETZ: Creative director Marsha Brady says they soon realized their tech-crazy customers craved something else - a sense of nostalgia. Many of the styles for sale are no longer in production. But they reminded 20-somethings of styles they saw as a kid.

BRADY: One of the most popular things that we hear when people are looking at the watches is, Oh, my God, I used to have that watch. And I think that's what draws people in initially. Vintage is a very big part of our aesthetic.

GOETZ: Last year the company sold 84,000 of them, the same year the iPhone released its latest version. This year, Brady says they expect watch sales to climb 30 percent higher.

Max Kilger is an analyst for Experian Simmons, a firm that tracks consumer behavior. He says retailers are finding there's still a market for watches, if they understand why.

MAX KILGER: With the increase in smartphone usage, it's caused the watch industry to kind of shift away from more utilitarian watches, which are less in demand now, and towards more fashion statement watches.

GOETZ: In other words, people - even those in their 20's and 30's - are buying watches, just not to tell time. They are people who use fashion to project their tastes - be it classic, retro or street style. Using a watch as a statement piece has always been true with the luxury market. And today, that's booming too. Just this month, auction house Sotheby's brought in its second-highest watch sale ever, nearly 13 million.

Back at American Apparel, 21-year-old fashion student Taylor Trentini says she always wears her big, gold-plated watch.

TAYLOR TRENTINI: Yeah, it's very much a fashion thing, I think. But it's a habit for me now. If I'm not wearing it, I feel lost.

GOETZ: And she even uses it to check the time, once in awhile.

For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz in New York.

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This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.