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SPECIAL REPORT: Garmin watches get smarter, sportier and more lux

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The average price paid for smartwatches has been ticking up in a similar way to the wider market for analogue timepieces. Far from smartwatch manufacturers simply hiking prices, they are in a healthy battle to increase the value of their products by improving functionality, using higher quality materials and generally improving the package with enhancements like brighter screens, more sensors and better connectivity to tethered phones.

It would be easy to think that this is all being driven by Apple, with its access to billions in research and development dollars, but there is remarkably energetic competition from companies that are taking quite different approaches to serving an increasingly segmented market.

Moreover, smartwatch makers are not just battling among themselves for customers that want wearable computers on their wrists, they are growing the market by attracting people that might never have worn a wristwatch (they use their phones to tell the time), or people that have always worn analogue watches but have been drawn to smartwatches because they like particular features.

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A fast-growing area of the market is the elderly, which are turning to certain smartwatches because they track health metrics like blood pressure and heart rhythm, potentially warning them of any changes that could require medical intervention.

Some momentum was lost last year as the pandemic pinched smartwatch sales, but total shipments still inched up by 1.5% and it was the premium end of the market where vendors like Apple, Samsung and Garmin compete that grew fastest, according to Counterpoint Technology Market Research.

“Price band dynamics during Q4 2020 indicate average selling prices (ASPs) are on the rise. 2019’s biggest segment ($101-$200) shrank by 7%pts, while the more premium $300-plus segments grew by 8%pts,” says Counterpoint senior analyst Sujeong Lim.

“We believe the ASPs will continue to rise over the next two to three years as companies’ flagship models continue to lead,” he adds.

Garmin is both leading and following this march upmarket, particularly with the launch in 2019 of its MARQ Collection of connected smartwatches that adopt many watchmaking techniques from Swiss and Japanese manufacturers while keeping half an eye on what tech giants like Apple, Samsung and Huawei are doing.

The MARQ Collection uses very select materials, meticulously crafted and designed to a quality that helps guarantee performance in the most demanding of environments.

Garmin calls the MARQ its first “tool watch”, a term used in traditional watchmaking circles to describe timepieces made to such precise tolerances that they can be worn on the deepest ocean dives or built to survive extreme conditions faced by mountaineers, racing driver or sailors.

Effectively, Garmin is inviting customers to compare its MARQ to legendary watches like Omega’s Seamaster, Rolex’s Submariner or TAG Heuer’s Carrera. In reality, lovers of these Swiss tool watches are very likely to own a Garmin as well, particularly if they are keen golfers, runners or divers.

Garmin MARQ is positioned as a professional tool watch with Swiss levels of finish.

Each Garmin MARQ watch is built from lightweight and super-strong titanium and uses domed sapphire crystal on its face to provide integrity and scratch resistance.

The MARQ Driver that launched in the first half of 2019 was important for more than just technical and aesthetic reasons. It was used as a bridgehead into the more traditional watch sector.

Garmin used it to reach out to jewellers and other specialist watch retailers. The company also invited journalists from the likes of aBlogtoWatch and WatchPro to launch events to make sure the MARQ was reviewed by people more familiar with Breitling, Longines and Tissot timepieces.

The tactic is working. Despite a year’s hiatus when covid forced everybody to focus on survival through lock down rather than the next big thing, Garmin has made significant progress. “We can see the demand for smartwatches continually rise, but what I am most encouraged by is the growth seen within the watch specialist and jewellery industry,” says Ollie Stone, head of UK and Ireland watch sales for Garmin.

“Not only have we seen triple digit growth during the past twelve months, but this is also underpinned by a significant rise in the average selling price, suggesting an ever growing appreciation for luxury smartwatches. So we will continue to develop our brand and endeavour to become the luxury smartwatch of choice. We are working closely with many incredible independent and national jewellers, and will continue to develop our network with partners that match our ambition and enthusiasm,” he adds.

Mechanical watchmakers continually strive to develop “platform” timepieces so that a core design can be built upon over decades with different materials, colours and complications. Garmin has gone the same route with MARQ, but mainly by developing applications for different specialisms.

Since 2019, Garmin has introduced MARQ smartwatches for golfers, sailors, pilots, athletes and adventurers.

 

Since 2019, it has introduced models for drivers, golfers, sailors, pilots, athletes and adventurers. Along the say, it picked up another trick from the Swiss by making special editions such as the American Magic Edition for the America’s Cup sailing team.

While mechanical watches can do some pretty cool stuff by directing kinetic energy into springs, wheels and gears capable — in the case of perpetual calendars — of keeping time and date for more than one hundred years, smartwatches by Garmin and others do far more by putting battery power to work on hundreds of software applications. MARQ Driver, for example, is built for motoring enthusiasts and comes pre-loaded with 250 famous race tracks from around the world. MARQ Golfer has 41,000 preloaded golf courses and advanced game-tracking data so that a virtual caddie can tell a player you what club to use and where to aim.

Customers can take their pick of what type of functionality they want, but whether they favour mechanical or digital, they get premium materials, precision and luxury. The diamond-like carbon coating on a Garmin MARQ case is exactly what the Swiss use, and so is the ceramic of its bezel.

This elevates MARQ watches above mid-range Apple or Fossil smartwatches and pushes up prices to between £1,400 and £2,250 where they are likely to be compared to current TAG Heuer Connected timepieces selling in an almost identical range from £1,495 to £2,100 for a special Golf Edition.

That suits Garmin just fine, because this is a new direction for a brand that is also a massive player in less expensive sports watch market for runners and swimmers thanks to collections like Forerunner, Venu and Swim.

Garmin is persuading prestigious jewellers in Europe and the United States that its watches can and should be sold alongside traditional Swiss watches as lifestyle-enhancing luxuries that will also improve your golf/driving/running.

“We have been on an unbelievable journey during the past three years, and in this time we have launched some incredible collections. MARQ is our definition of a modern-day tool watch, boasting authenticity and functionality that’s heightened by its exquisitely crafted design,” Mr Stone suggests. “The collection itself has continually developed over time with firmware updates and additions to the family, particularly the MARQ Golfer which I am yet to take off my wrist since it arrived last June,” he continues.

Retailers are encouraged to sell Garmin MARQ as a lifestyle choice; a watch that can be worn as comfortably and stylishly for the first 18 holes of a round of golf and in the clubhouse afterwards.

“The important bit for us is to focus on bringing luxury products to market that deliver what the consumer is looking for right now, and if we do that consistently, success will follow,” Mr Stone insists.

While driving upmarket, Garmin has not forgotten its core customer base that are increasingly looking to smartwatches to improve their health and fitness. Within Garmin smartwatches there are a range of biometric sensors that constantly analyse the body, day and night, and that data feeds into apps that help people to better understand their health and wellbeing. “Ultimately, this allows us to take those steps that lead to a healthier lifestyle, a new running goal, or even shave a couple of shots off our handicap,” suggests Mr Stone.

Garmin’s Descent Mk2S is described as its smallest watch-style dive computer rather than a mere smartwatch. At 43mm, it is not exactly tiny, but it is designed to replace more bulky diving instruments that are essential for safety underwater. As a bonus, they will look great on dry land as well. “Building on the success of the Descent Mk2, we’re excited to give divers more options, especially our female customers,” said Dan Bartel, Garmin vice president of global consumer sales. “A tribute to your active lifestyle and passion as a diver, the Mk2S is both an essential tool for diving and a smart timepiece that allows you to track your activities around-the-clock.” The Descent Mk2S is a full-featured dive computer with support for multiple dive modes for single and multiple gas dives (including nitrox, trimix and 100% O2), gauge, apnea, apnea hunt and closed-circuit rebreather. Mk2S will mark entry and exit points in the water using multi-GNSS satellite support and includes an underwater 3-axis compass. Divers can view depth, dive time, temperature, NDL/TTS, ascent/descent rates, gas mix, PO2, N2 loading, decompression/safety stop information, time-of-day and more, right on the wrist.
Data from up to 200 dives can be stored and viewed on the companion Garmin Dive app, which provides a detailed analysis of each dive activity including max depth, bottom time and a map of surface entry and exit points. It can also be used as a multisport GPS smartwatch with all-day health monitoring, built-in sports apps and more. It comes in three colorways: light gold with light sand silicone band, carbon grey DLC with black silicone band and mineral blue with sea foam silicone band, all priced at $999.99.

One issue with the potential to hold back smartwatch sales is battery life, particularly for people that have been winding their automatic watches with a wave of their arm for decades. Modern connected timepieces are tackling this issue with power-saving modes or, in the case of hybrid watches, by doing away with battery-draining screens altogether and presenting the time with analogue hands while sensors feed measurements to smartphone apps.

Garmin has a proprietary contribution in the form of Power Glass, which turns sunlight into power. It is used for both Fenix and Instinct watches, which will run for weeks rather than a day or two, before needing to be recharged.

The newest watch in Garmin’s portfolio, the Venu 2 that launched in April, is an all-rounder offered in 40mm or 45mm case sizes that has an incredibly sharp and bright AMOLED display but still offers a week’s battery life. It joins another new collection for 2021, the Lily, which is Garmin’s smallest smartwatch to date and also has a power-saving trick.

“It is an extremely stylish watch which sits within a 34mm case. The unique patterned lens comes to life with either a tap, or twist to the arm revealing the bright touchscreen display. This is a fantastic watch for those looking for an easy to use experience whilst still having access to the essential smartwatch and wellbeing features you come to expect from a Garmin,” Mr Stone says.

TAG Heuer, Hublot and Montblanc are among Swiss marques aiming to bring traditional luxury watchmaking to smartwatches.

Looking to the future, Garmin will continue to innovate in order to keep pace (or outpace) rivals that are looking to grab market share in an increasingly stratified market. TAG Heuer, Hublot and Montblanc are competing with MARQ at the premium end while Google-owned Fitbit and Apple are fighting in the mass market wellness and fitness space.

“There has been some fantastic innovation during recent years, and I fully expect this to continue. The trend right now is understanding and improving your body’s health and wellbeing. But the appreciation for luxury smartwatches still excites me, and I have no doubt that we will see some interesting developments during the next couple of years and beyond,” Mr Stone concludes.

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