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Why Women Aren’t Buying Smartwatches

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Fashion-tech is the kind of word pairing that people love hearing themselves say. It sounds futuristic and cool, a union of two slick worlds that have nothing to do with each other — except for everything (okay, now it's a rom-com, but bear with me). Wearables, including smartwatches and fitness trackers, are the apotheosis of fashion-tech. Fashion accessories with technological superpowers! They're perfect — except they aren't.


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It's taken awhile for wearables to break through the mainstream, but we're here. According to a 2015 Consumers and Wearables Report by NPD Connected Intelligence, one in 10 US adults owns a fitness tracker. Of that group, 54% are women. So why, then, are 71% of smartwatch owners male?

A quick definition of terms before we go on: fitness trackers are the things that count your steps, possibly monitor sleep, and maybe track heart rate, like a Fitbit or Jawbone's Up band. Smartwatches do those things as well as mirror your smartphone with little screens that display e-mail, show calendar notifications, and run apps, like the Apple Watch or... go ahead, try to name another major smartwatch.

Fitness trackers and smartwatches ask for the same wrist real estate (except for clip-on trackers, which can be worn under clothes). They're both "accessories," and the smartwatch offers increased function. Why aren't women biting?

A Swarovski display at CES 2016. Photo: Amelia Krales for Racked

There's Not a Lot to Choose From

Design is the most obvious starting point. It sucks to use gender to describe aesthetics in 2016, but the bulk of smartwatches still look traditionally "masculine." They have clunky straps and bulky settings that either try to mimic chronograph watch styles or look like a 1980s vision of a wrist computer. Not only are they unattractive, but they're scaled for big forearms and broad hands. On smaller-boned users, be they male or female, the devices look out of place.

The final step in making wearable tech for ladies? Throw some jewels on it.

The solve for this has been smartwatches designed specifically for women, to varying degrees of offense. Resizing is the first step: a thinner strap, a smaller face, more delicate styling (though, of course, not all women have tiny wrists, the same way that not all men have big wrists). Colorways come next, trading "masculine" black, gray, or brown for "feminine" white, tan, and now-ubiquitous rose gold (seriously, ever since Apple added rose gold to their lineup in September, every damn tech company has followed suit). The final step in making wearable tech for ladies? Throw some jewels on it. Sigh.

A perfect example of this just-for-women formula came from the two female styles Huawei introduced at CES last week, called Elegant and Jewel. The Chinese brand took its existing smartwatch and updated the face in rose gold (surprise!), the strap in white leather (surprise!), and ensured one version had — wait for it — a circle of Swarovski crystals. It designed a handful of new watch screens to accompany the launch, adding light-colored backgrounds with thin, digital hands and Roman numerals, even more crystal imagery, and an option called "Moon Phases" that's vaguely celestial but doesn't not call to mind menstruation.

karlie-kloss-smart-watch-ad_2016_01

Karlie Kloss models Huawei's new women's watch

Sad Gender Stereotypes

It feels awfully unmodern to assign gender to a piece of technology, no matter how "fashionable" it aims to be. Over in fashion-land, transgender models are landing serious gigs on runways and in major ad campaigns, and designers are thinking gender-neutral. Jaden Smith is wearing a skirt for Louis Vuitton's spring ads, the current class of supermodels are tomboys, and trans South Asian artist duo Darkmatter are earning profiles everywhere from Refinery29 to The New Yorker. We've arrived at the point where beginning and ending your concept meeting with "girls wear pink and covet diamonds" is embarrassingly dated.

Apple managed to make its Watch without alluding to gender. It wasn't the best looking thing Apple's made, but the streamlined design was brand-appropriate and there were plenty of mix-and-match options that didn't lean on "for men, for women." Sizing for the Watch is by factual measurement (38mm and 42mm) rather than subjective scale (small, large).

Beginning and ending your concept meeting with "girls wear pink and covet diamonds" is embarrassingly dated.

Fitbit missed this memo when it named the sizes of its new product, a unisex "smart fitness watch" called Blaze. The accessory comes in small, large, and extra large. Puzzling. (The company's previous fitness watch, the Surge, does this as well.) I asked a brand rep at the company's CES booth why there was no medium, and he told me it's because "medium doesn't really mean anything." If medium doesn't mean anything, I countered, then what do small, large, and extra large mean? My query was mostly existential, but the rep told me small is meant for women, large for men, and extra large for... really big men. If a woman's wrist is bigger than the dimensions of "small" to comfortable fit, she'll need to size up to "large," a word that is drilled into our pretty little minds as a negative. And the same goes for gentleman who find the large size to be too big. Now they are small. Following last week's announcement of Blaze, Fitbit's stock dropped by more than 12%.

On the flip side of all this is Pebble, which is winning the race in sleek design free from gender tropes. The company's Time Round style, which came out last fall, has an attractive balance of proportion between a clean, circular face (albeit one with a large bezel) and a selection of leather bands that come in two width options. There is no pink. There are no rhinestones.

Clockwise from top left: Mira, Fossil, Mira, Tory Burch for Fitbit. Photos: Amelia Krales for Racked

Wearables Should Actually Be Wearable

Fitness trackers have approached the female market by disguising themselves as jewelry (some even bill their styles as "connected bracelets"). The most successful ones aren't flashy and full of faux-diamonds; they're distilled, versatile designs. Fitbit began hiding its Flex tracker inside of Tory Burch-designed cuff bracelets and pendant necklaces back in 2014. Jawbone added metal, jewelry-like clasps to its Up2, Up3, and Up4 bands last year. The updated styles featured patterned aluminum cases in refreshingly un-gendered colors like silver, ruby red, and deep teal.

"If you’re only wearing it when you work out, you’ll never get an idea of your daily habits."

"Smart bracelet" brand Mira hit Kickstarter in November 2014, raising $12,000 for its initial product, which houses a removable black "opal" (the smart part) inside of a brushed metal bracelet. At CES, it revealed an update for 2016 that further cloaks the tech element by nesting the opal inside of a cuff bracelet (fully hidden) as well as a pendant necklace option. Mira's content manager Maya Henderson told Racked the design choice to disguise a tracker as jewelry came from nationwide interviews with women. "We found that women did want to track their activity, but they wanted something they could wear all the time," she said. The research revealed that many women would abandon sporty-looking trackers when it came time to dress up, "put [the tracker] in a drawer, forget about it, and never wear it again." Henderson explains that aesthetics matter so much because "the more you wear it, the more you are getting an actual, realistic picture of your activity and habits. If you’re only wearing it when you work out, you’ll never get an idea of your daily habits."

Another impressive tracker design slated for 2016 came from Fossil, which is giving its Q Dreamer bracelet a beautiful update with materials like tortoiseshell, imitation mother of pearl, and leather. Misfit, which was acquired by Fossil for $260 million late last year, will launch Ray in March, a style that uses a minimalist brushed aluminum cylinder to hold all the smart stuff, strapped on by interchangeable slim straps that come in rubber as well as leather. As for color, they opted for black, a copper they're billing as rose gold (can't escape it), and cool grey. Both products use discreet lights with customizable color profiles to alert for incoming notifications, edging their use beyond step counting.

Smartwatches Promise Too Much, Yet Nothing Specific

Part of the advantage fitness trackers have over smartwatches with female consumers seems to be their simplicity. "The common knock against general-purpose smartwatches today is that they’re very overwhelming; they do too much," Fitbit CEO James Park told The Verge. Kaspar Heinrici, who designs traditional watches as well as connected devices for Fossil as its associate creative director, told Racked that the most common pushback it gets from women on wearables is a similar lack of seeing the need. "The first reaction to technical products from women is 'Oh, I don’t really need that functionality,' or 'That’s too much for me,'" he says. Fitness trackers are straightforward and, even more importantly, they offer the promise of a better self.

Smartwatches have yet to leverage the siren call of 'me, but better.'

Aspiration is a strong tool in selling fashion. Think of the purchase motivations behind clothes, jewelry, or cosmetics. Largely, these aren't replenishment buys like razor blades or socks, and they're not thoughtful "big gadget" investments like televisions or washing machines. An internal tick is convinced life will be better with the confidence that comes with a dress that fits just so, a designer bag that communicates status, or the seamless disguising of under eye circles. Fitness trackers make an obvious path to an improved self; an increased awareness of behaviors that can be altered for results (more rest, fewer pounds, what have you). With all of their notifications and connected apps, smartwatches have yet to leverage the siren call of "me, but better."

Zendaya in an Apple Watch. Photo: Amanda Edwards/WireImage

Tech Brands Need to Stand For Something

An ace way to create an emotional buy-in is by selling an image that goes beyond products. Every successful beauty and fashion brand thrives on selling lifestyle. The absurdity of a perfume ad on TV is the perfect example of creating little more than mood. The only sense of the true product you get is the packaging (form) and maybe the image of flowers if it’s floral scent (function). The rest of the spot is a popular actress in a glamorous city, or an up-and-coming model luxuriating in a meadow, free of all cares. A flag is firmly planted in specific and singular image, which is echoed in packaging, store displays, magazine placements, and across social media platforms. It's part of creating a consistent characterization of the brand, even if it's not for everyone (picture the difference between the rabid fans of Lilly Pulitzer, versus the Alexander Wang diehards). People like tribes; they like to belong, but not to just anything.

For the average shopper, Apple is the only tech company that has a lick of identity. Technology brands need to be an extension the personal image regular people want to communicate. (What is Samsung? What is LG? Are there Motorola stans??) Whether it’s in the form of a watch or tank top, shoppers need to be excited by the prospect of being seen with this item on their person, regardless of gender.

The smartwatch should be an easy win for tech companies looking to capture the female shopper (even though our dollar is actually 79 cents, it's still money, promise!). Women have already proven they're comfortable with a wrist-strapped device by their overwhelming interest in fitness trackers. With good design, better-communicated benefits, and brands that dare to make themselves known, smartwatches could have a shot.

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