Smartwatches vs. Fitness Trackers: Why People Buy Differently


While smartwatches and fitness trackers are in many ways similar, it turns out that two very different groups of consumers are buying and using the two categories of wearables so far. New data from the NPD Connected Intelligence Consumer and Wearables Report reveals that very different groups of people buy smartwatches and fitness trackers. Apple Insider notes that the research shows that one in 10 U.S adults now owns a fitness tracker, but smartwatches are not yet as mainstream, and have reached just 2% market penetration. NPD’s survey polled 5,000 U.S. consumers aged 18 and older in December, and combined that information with data on unit sales of wearable devices.

Owners of fitness-focused wearables tend to be older and more affluent than owners of smartwatches, and NPD researchers found that 36% of fitness tracker owners in the U.S. are between the ages of 35 and 54. Additionally, 54% of fitness tracker owners are women. Conversely, 69% of smartwatch owners are between the ages of 18 and 34. Smartwatch users are overwhelmingly male, with men accounting for 71% of smartwatch owners in the U.S. When it comes to average income, 41% of those who owned a fitness tracker have an annual income of $100,000 or more. However, 48% of smartwatch owners earn less than $45,000.

Wes Henderek, director NPD Connected Intelligence, notes that there is “no ‘average’ consumer for the wearables market.” The markets for fitness trackers and smartwatches are fundamentally different, and NPD expects that there will be a place for both in the market for consumer electronics. Henderek notes, “While we expect smartwatch ownership to grow more rapidly over the next year, there will remain a clear place for the fitness tracker due to its size, battery life, and focus on one specific use case – as opposed to the smartwatch which is trying to be a little bit of everything for everyone.”

Henderek’s final comment highlights the key difference between the purposes that smartwatches and fitness trackers fulfill: As the name indicates, fitness trackers are meant for a specific use case, and thus resonate with people who value the ability to track and quantify their workouts. Smartwatches, by contrast, have a wider range of capabilities and uses as they look to extend the functionality of the user’s smartphone (and often end up feeling a little bit redundant in doing so).

As CNET reported in December, advising its readers on what to look for in a smartwatch or a fitness tracker, wearables are useful in some cases but as a whole, many of the devices that have been introduced so far are still “largely superfluous and unnecessary.” That’s expected to change in 2015. MIT Technology Review reports that so far at the International Consumer Electronics Show, exhibitors have unveiled “every imaginable wearable gadget, designed for everything from baby monitoring to calmer meditation.”

Wearable device makers are improving on ways to take more accurate and intimate measurements than have been possible with a simple accelerometer, and both smartwatches and fitness trackers will become smarter in 2015.  The wearable market this year will largely center on the Apple Watch: its successes and failures, the products that competitors release or delay to compete with it, and the apps that developers build to run on it. The race to find the killer smartwatch app will also intensify, with developers for the Apple Watch, Android Wear, and Samsung Gear platforms all looking for the most compelling uses for the technology.

As developers and manufacturers involved with smartwatches look to improve these devices’ expansion of the smartphone experience, fitness band manufacturers will aim to make their devices’ sensors more capable and more accurate. Accurate heart rate detection will likely be a particularly important part of the picture for fitness trackers, and manufacturers will likely push the capabilities of the other sensors that they include in their fitness-focused wearables.

Computerworld notes that some experts are concerned that as wearable devices proliferate, manufacturers place too much of a focus on bringing a new product to market without considering the relevance of these products to the daily lives of users. With the new data made available by studies such as NPD’s, it may become easier for manufacturers to understand how and why consumers use the wearable devices that they’ve chosen, and further define how smartwatches and fitness trackers need to evolve to serve two very different markets.

Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association which runs the annual CES event, notes that there is a difference between “what can be done with technology and what’s technologically meaningful.” While almost every fitness tracker and smartwatch has a health-related app or software package, the connection between that data and the user’s goal is rarely clear enough.  Dubravac says, “Information isn’t enough. It has to have some level of influence back into our physical space.”

Even if manufacturers haven’t gotten that balance completely figured out yet, consumers have demonstrated that they’re interested in smartwatches and fitness trackers, and will likely continue to do so in the new year. The CEA projects shipments of nearly 11 million smartwatches in the U.S. in 2015, and expects that they will produce $3.1 billion in revenue.

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