NEW YORK – Japan’s two major timepiece makers, Citizen Watch Co. and Seiko Watch Corp., are zeroing in on the high end of the North American market where Swiss firms have built solid brand recognition.
Citizen is resurrecting the time-honored Wittnauer brand, a marque dating back to the late 19th century, with a new lineup to be released in the United States and Canada in early October, an official said.
Seiko, meanwhile, is aiming to double its U.S. sales of the Astron series of GPS-mounted wristwatches that switch to local time anywhere in the world. An assortment of new offerings will be introduced with top tennis star Novak Djokovic enlisted as a Seiko brand promoter.
In the U.S. market, emblematic Swiss marques such as Rolex and the Swatch Group’s Omega and Longines have the upper hand in the luxury product segment, while wristwatches from the fashion brand Michael Kors have been enjoying solid sales in the mid-price range.
Japanese brands are “mainly sold in the mid- to low-price ranges and therefore are generally not perceived as upmarket products,” said a U.S. journalist who writes for a timepiece magazine.
U.S. consumers are also embracing wrist devices that work in tandem with smartphones, marketed by South Korea’s Samsung Electrics Co. and other manufacturers.
Apple Inc. has also unveiled Apple Watch, a line of smart wristwatches that work with iPhones planned for release early next year. Prices will start at $349 in the United States, which the journalist said could eat into the market of similarly priced Japanese timepieces.
Seiko and Citizen are planning to make further inroads in the United States by highlighting their long-established brands and their products’ distinct functions, but time may run out on them if they fail to adapt to the rapidly evolving market.
Citizen bought major U.S. wristwatch company Bulova Corp. in 2008, which gave it access to the luxury Wittnauer brand. The Japanese company is reviving this brand after keeping it in the background since it last released products in 2009.
Wittnauer dates back to 1880 when Albert Wittnauer started manufacturing wristwatches in Switzerland and exporting them to the United States. His brand found success among U.S. consumers hungry for high-quality Swiss timepieces.
In its century-long history, Wittnauer enjoyed close relations with Longines, one of the best-known Swiss brands, sometimes marketing lines of watches under both of their names. Citizen is hoping Wittnauer’s potential upmarket image takes root and reaches a broader range of consumers.
Bulova will be offering 68 models for men and women ranging from $195 to $495. Marked by glamorous designs, they include a rhinestone-decorated line and a gold-plated chronograph — a type of watch combining display watch and stopwatch.
Citizen is projecting $30 million in 2018 sales in the Wittnauer division. This will be a key component of its ambition to expand overall U.S. sales — including revenue from its mainline Citizen and Bulova brands — to $500 million in that year, up 25 percent from 2013.
“We would like to first re-establish (Wittnauer’s) reputation in North America before extending our reach to other parts of the world,” said Citizen Watch director Fusamitsu Natori, who concurrently serves as Bulova chairman.
Citizen is also opening a flagship store in New York’s Time Square in November, the first in North America, to increase its presence in the U.S. and international markets.
In August, Seiko unwrapped new lines of the Astron at a press event in New York that featured Serbian tennis player Djokovic, ranked world No. 1 in the sport, and Seiko President Shinji Hattori, among others.
Aiming to double U.S. sales of Astron in fiscal 2014, Seiko released a new more compact line of chronographs in September. Around 30 percent smaller than conventional models, the new Astron line offers “high functionality,” a Seiko official said. A total of nine models including limited editions will be put on the market in the $1,825 to $3,300 price range.
The GPS-enabled Astron will acquire current location data with the push of a button and tune in to local time no matter where it is in the world. It was first introduced in September 2012.
The brand name derives from the Quartz Astron, the world’s first quartz wristwatch introduced by Seiko in 1969 that kept time more accurately than mechanical timepieces. It bears Seiko’s ambition for a “second revolution” following the success of the quartz series.
Seiko is planning to make the Astron available in 200 shops in the United States by the end of the year, up from around 150 in a recent count, including the just-opened flagship boutique on New York’s Madison Avenue.
At the boutique opening event held in Manhattan, President Shinji Hattori said the Astron may have a wider appeal in the U.S. market than in other parts of the world.
“Globally, the Astron is chiefly targeted at businessmen traveling to various parts of the world, but it will come in very handy in the United States because (the contiguous mainland) has four time zones,” he said. “I would think it would be accepted by a broad spectrum of consumers.”
He said its core price band of $1,800 to $3,000 will put the Astron up against upmarket Swiss brands such as Tag Heuer and Omega, which are generally marketed in a similar price range.