Japanese watch makers, long overshadowed by luxury Swiss brands, have found their niche: radio-controlled watches.
The nation’s time-pressed salaried workers have taken a particular shine to the watches, which lose only a second every 100,000 years. A typical quartz watch loses between 10 and 20 seconds per month.
“You can say the radio-controlled watches are the savior of Japanese watch makers,” said Yoshiaki Ashizawa, director of Citizen Trading Co., a marketing arm of Citizen Watch Co.
Sections of Citizen’s watch and clock business have been either stagnating or declining, but sales of its radio-controlled watches are growing strongly. In retail value, sales grew to 10 billion yen in fiscal 2003 from 3 billion yen a year earlier, the firm said.
The company in 1993 became the first Japanese maker to produce radio-controlled watches. But a model designed for the mainstream market did not appear until 2002. Priced at 38,000 yen, it was a hit.
“It disappeared from store shelves in a few days,” Ashizawa said. “I just cannot remember the last time our watches sold that well.”
The 2003 models, the first radio-controlled watches to feature full metal casing and priced between 50,000 yen and 120,000 yen, were even more popular.
The preceding models, which featured a glass bottom or bulky body to house an antenna and to ensure good reception, had to compromise on design, Citizen officials said.
Men in their 50s and 60s were the first to buy, apparently attracted to the watches’ time precision.
Ashizawa said many owners get a kick out of checking to see if their watch synchronizes with the time shown on TV programs.
The watches pick up radio signals sent by two transmission stations operated by the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, a government-affiliated entity tasked with informing the country of standard time kept by atomic clocks.
The first station started its operation in Fukushima Prefecture in 1999 and another followed in Saga Prefecture in 2001. The signals from both stations almost cover the entire country.
The concept of always having the exact time has given a marketing boost to Casio Computer Co.’s G-Shock series of watches, considered an icon among sporty youngsters.
Coupled with a solar battery, the new feature has helped lure back customers.
“We can clearly present the functional evolution of G-Shock,” said Hidekazu Tanaka, senior marketing official of Casio.
The company forecast the domestic shipment of G-Shock models to grow 20 percent to 1.3 million watches for the current fiscal year. In fiscal 1997, the last boom year for the brand, worldwide shipments numbered 6 million.
Casio expects the nation’s radio-controlled watch market to reach 2 million pieces for the current fiscal year, up from 1.5 million the previous year. The firm hopes to secure a 60 percent market share, against 66 percent in fiscal 2003.
Japanese watch makers had witnessed stagnant sales for more than a decade. Japanese-brand quartz watches were popular in the 1970s and 1980s, but were later sidelined by upscale Swiss makers, including Rolex and Omega.
Seiko Watch Corp., which in 1969 introduced the world’s first quartz watch, is a relative latecomer to the radio-controlled segment, launching new models last spring.
Seiko officials expect fierce competition in the radio-controlled watch market during the yearend shopping season at volume retailers, which handle watches in the 50 yen,000-100,000 yen range.
But Seiko officials said they are skeptical that radio-controlled watches alone can bring Japanese makers back to the forefront.
Seiko said that on a unit basis, Swiss imports accounted for only 3.8 percent of the domestic retail market in 2003. But in value, their share was 62 percent of the 581.13 billion yen market.
Winning in the volume zone of between 20,000 yen and 100,000 yen alone is not enough to claim supremacy in the watch market, said Hiroyuki Suzuki, senior manager at Seiko’s public relations department.
“We cannot become a market leader if we cannot compete with the Swiss,” he said.
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