Wearing Tech on Your Sleeve

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While the rest of the world has slowing interest in trackers and smartwatches, in China the market is booming. Jamie Carter tells us why.

China loves wearables. In other areas of the world smartwatches, fitness trackers and sleep monitors are on the wane as gadget-fatigue sets in, but in China sales of wearables grew 51 percent in 2016. Why?

It’s definitely not an obsession with fitness. “China does not have a big fitness industry or culture relative to other developed markets like the USA, but it does have a significant gadget-consuming culture,” says Mariia Konovalova, research analyst at Futuresource Consulting. While fitness freaks in the USA, the UK, and Scandinavia like to buy high-end activity trackers and sports watches like the Apple Watch Series 3, Samsung Gear S3, and Garmin vívoactive HR, sales of such gadgets in China are small.

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Here, it’s all about basic activity trackers like the Xiaomi Mi Band 2, the ELE MGCOOL Band 2, and I5 Plus. In fact, 80 percent of all wearables sold in China are activity trackers.

China’s growing, aspirational middle class loves gadgets – and what better way to kick-start a health-conscious lifestyle than with a wristband that records your activity? However, it’s also about China’s advanced retailing. Online stores like Alibaba, JD, Tmall, and Suning have been aggressively marketing wearables, which are far less advertised elsewhere in the world, and account for over 50 percent of sales. “Over 90 percent of wearables are made in China and the technologies find their way into the domestic market via domestic brands and large online portals,” says Konovalova.

fitness tracker smartwatch

Although the fitness tracker dominates, there’s another type of tracker unique to China; the GPS locator. In fact, every fifth wearable device sold in China records the GPS position of the wearer and shares it with someone else, typically a parent. “China is the biggest market for kid trackers globally,” says Konovalova, who confirms that over 10 million 3G-enabled wristbands from brands like Xiaotiancai, 360, and Xiaomi, sold here last year.

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Why is this a phenomenon only in China? Are China’s parents more concerned about their children’s safety than anyone else around the world? China’s one-child policy might have something to do with that.

Will Asia’s obsession with wearables continue? There are reasons to believe it will, particularly since mobile payments have taken hold. Tencent has over 200 million user cards attached to its Tenpay payment service, which is embedded in WeChat, while Alibaba’s Alipay has 500 million users and 200 million credit cards. “Although China was one of the first countries to adopt mobile payment, most of the transactions are still done through mobile handsets rather than wearables,” says Konovalova.

trackers wearables smartwatch

However, she thinks that the increasing use of mobile payments on buses, trains and in taxis means that wearables could soon play a major role. As the number of retail locations that accept wearable payment grows, so too will ownership of wearables.

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So, it’s not over yet. “The USA is arguably reaching saturation and China still has some way to go,” says Konovalova. “Penetration in China is still far below the US at 3 percent in 2016 versus 22 percent in the US across all wearable categories.” As always, the sheer size of China’s population wins out, but this time it’s running (and walking) the show.

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About Author

Jamie Carter is a freelance science, technology and travel journalist and author who writes for TechRadar.com, the South China Morning Post, BBC Sky at Night and Travel + Leisure.

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