Apple Is Going After Fitbit

Fitbit is being underestimated. While Wall Street continues to show little interest in the wearables company, Fitbit is on track to quietly sell more than 25 million wrist devices in 2016. Not only has Apple taken notice of Fitbit's sales success, but Apple Watch is being put on a fitness detour to better compete against Fitbit. There is only one genuine battle for the wrist, and it is between Fitbit and Apple Watch. 

It's Fitbit vs. Apple Watch

There was much unknown surrounding wrist wearables when Apple unveiled Apple Watch in September 2014. One of the biggest mysteries dealt with competition. There were at least six potential sources for Apple Watch competition: 

  • Luxury watch industry
  • Technology industry
  • Fashion industry
  • Health and Fitness industry
  • Entertainment industry
  • Other (health insurance industry, etc.)

Over the past two years, we have received some answers as to how these potential competition sources have panned out. It would be an understatement to say that there were a few surprises. 

  • Luxury watch industry: After a year of denial, a handful of luxury watchmakers have embraced the idea of connected watches. None have sold in volume.  
  • Technology industry: Android Wear is irrelevant. Microsoft just canned its Band wearable product. Samsung and its Tizen platform are barely on the map. 
  • Fashion industry: Nonfactor. 
  • Health and Fitness industry: Fitbit is on track to sell nearly 25M devices in 2016. Garmin and other fitness endurance companies remain niche players. 
  • Entertainment industry: Nonfactor.
  • Other: Nonfactor. 

While many thought the battle for the wrist would be between Apple and the Swiss watch industry, in reality, there was barely a skirmish. When ranked according to revenue, Apple was the second best-selling watch brand in 2015 despite having only eight months of sales. On a unit sales basis, Apple has already become the best-selling watch brand. After only a few months, Apple Watch's impact on the Swiss watch industry was being felt. (Evidence of deteriorating Swiss watch industry operating conditions is available here, here, and here.)

The only legitimate Apple Watch competition ended up coming from the health and fitness industry. Fitbit is the only wearables company outselling Apple Watch in terms of unit sales. When combined, Fitbit and Apple Watch represent nearly 40 percent of all wrist wearable devices sold in 2016 year-to-date. This means that there is a 40 percent chance that a consumer looking for additional utility on the wrist will end up buying either a Fitbit or Apple Watch. 

Fitbit Results

Fitbit Co-Founder and CEO James Park, along with Co-Founder and CTO Eric Friedman, have turned Fitbit from a company selling simple activity trackers into a household name synonymous with health and fitness tracking. After going through the Fitbit Force recall in 2014 when adhesives were found to cause severe skin rashes, Fitbit management has gone on to execute extremely well in terms of product, marketing, and distribution. Fitbit devices are available in 54,000 retail stores in 64 countries. 

In terms of unit sales, Fitbit's revenue guidance implies the company is on track to sell 26 million devices in 2016. On a cumulative basis, Fitbit has sold nearly 55 million health and fitness trackers. As seen in Exhibit 1, Fitbit has seen iPod-like sales growth in recent years. Fitbit average selling price (ASP) trends have increased to approximately $100. 

Exhibit 1: Fitbit Unit Sales (annual)

Fitbit's product strategy has been one of diversification. As shown in Exhibit 2, the company continues to build on its core activity-tracking capabilities in order to expand the product line. Devices like the Blaze smartwatch are designed to appeal to consumers wanting more utility on the wrist. In addition, Fitbit has been investing in software and services in order to expand into other mobile realms. Judging by recent M&A, the Fitbit product pipeline likely includes many more health-focused initiatives as well as broader computing features such as a mobile payments offering.

Exhibit 2: Fitbit's Expanding Product Line


There have been a few warning signs circling around Fitbit. Sales growth is slowing. In 2015, Fitbit grew unit sales at 96 percent. The company will be lucky to see greater than 25 percent growth this year. Another issue that has plagued the company is the rate at which Fitbit customers stop using their devices. The data suggests that nearly one in three people buying a Fitbit will stop using it within nine months. This is high and has been the source of much skepticism around health and fitness trackers. In addition, there have been questions around some of Fitbit's technology, such as the accuracy found with its heart rate monitors. Despite all of these issues, Fitbit currently has an active installed base of approximately 20 million, which is more than the number of Apple Watches sold to date. 

Apple Watch Results

In some ways, Apple Watch performed much better than Fitbit out of the gate. Since April 2015, Apple has sold 16 million Apple Watches. Not only is that a much faster sales ramp than Fitbit, but it also places the Apple Watch as the third best-selling Apple product post-launch, behind iPad and iPhone. On a revenue basis, Apple is on track to report $4.2 billion of Apple Watch revenue in 2016, $1.5 billion more than Fitbit. I previously valued the Apple Watch business at $10 billion

Exhibit 3: Apple Product Sales Post-Launch

While these Apple Watch numbers are unequivocally strong for a new product, upon closer examination there have been a few developments worth monitoring. Apple Watch sales growth slowed heading into summer 2016. While there are a handful of possible explanations for the slowdown, including the lack of new models and purchases being pushed to the holiday quarter, Fitbit did not see a similar drop in sales. At the same time, Apple Watch ASP has been declining as Apple pushes through price cuts while Fitbit's ASP has been increasing as the company sells higher-priced devices. 

The Fitness Detour

Apple's strategy with the Apple Watch has seen significant changes in just 17 months on the market. The company's initial goal for Apple Watch was to redefine a smartwatch as a fashionable piece of luxury. Apple went so far as to have exclusive showings in the days leading up to the launch, and the star of the show was Apple Watch and the assortment of Watch bands. 

As seen with last month's launch of Apple Watch Series 2, Apple has taken a decidedly different route with Apple Watch. (My initial Apple Watch Series 2 impressions are available here.) Fitness and health are being given a much greater focus. The three main selling features found in Series 2 were framed around fitness activities:

  • GPS: For runners.
  • Water resistant: For swimmers.
  • Better display: For outdoor activities.

Apple is taking a fitness detour with Apple Watch Series 2, placing a bet that the best and most effective way to sell the next 15 million Apple Watches will be to position the device as a health and fitness monitor. Some of this changed strategy is due to the current state of wearables in 2016. Consumers are embracing the idea of using wrist devices to monitor tasks like miles walked or calories burned. In addition, Apple is indirectly admitting that some of the mini-iPhone on the wrist product marketing for Apple Watch was off the mark and not quite resonating with the average consumer. 

A Formidable Competitor

Consensus has never viewed Fitbit and Apple as rivals. Fitbit is often described as a low-end hardware manufacturer that will eventually run out of time or be pushed out of the wearables market by either a premium player like Apple or low-cost competition. Apple and Fitbit have also been operating at pretty different ASP ranges with Apple Watch closer to $400 and Fitbit at less than $100. 

Consensus is wrong.

Fitbit and Apple are not only rivals in the wearables space, but Fitbit's progress in terms of product and brand development is not being fully appreciated. Fitbit is becoming a force within the wearables space, and Apple is left with no other choice than to respond. As a sign of how the two companies are increasingly going after the same buyer, there is a very high likelihood of an Apple Watch Series 1 model selling for $199 this holiday season after retailer promotions, the same price as a Fitbit Blaze smartwatch and $50 less than a Fitbit Surge.  

The Fitbit/Apple Watch situation is no longer akin to the MP3/iPod era during the early 2000s. Despite going up against a number of less expensive MP3 players, the iPod did just fine due to a much better user experience. Many consumers eventually bought an iPod after first trying a lower-cost alternative. This scenario may not happen in health and fitness wearables. Fitbit is iterating much faster than people were expecting. In addition, Fitbit is grabbing both market and mind share. Fitbit ASPs are increasing, and the company is leveraging a strong balance sheet by investing in R&D in addition to M&A. 

There is evidence that Fitbit is succeeding where Apple Watch has been coming up short. One chart demonstrates this scenario and explains why Apple is likely going after Fitbit. Exhibit 4 compares quarterly Fitbit unit sales to Apple Watch unit sales (the blue line). The increase in the Fitbit to Apple Watch unit sales ratio from 4Q15 to 2Q16 denotes a slowdown in Apple Watch sales when compared to Fitbit. The same trend is seen when comparing Fitbit revenue to Apple Watch revenue (the red line). Fitbit did not see the same kind of slowdown in sales this past spring. Exhibit 4 assumes Apple sees an increase in sales due to the Apple Watch Series 1 and Series 2 launch. 

Exhibit 4: Fitbit vs. Apple Watch Ratios (Unit Sales and Revenue)

The Goal

Apple's goal in going after Fitbit is simple: Prevent Fitbit from gaining additional ground in health and fitness tracking. Apple doesn't need to compete with Fitbit on price, but rather on feature set and ease of use. This is one area in which Fitbit has had an advantage by starting simple and then expanding outwards. Apple took the opposite approach with Apple Watch with the third-party app experiment.

In some ways, Fitbit has seen success by keeping it simple and not overselling wrist wearables. Apple appears to be taking notes. Assuming Fitbit continues to see growth in 2017, the company will soon be approaching 30 million unit sales per year. With an ASP of around $100, Fitbit would be on track to sell at least 5 million to 10 million devices that retail for more than $150. That is Apple Watch territory.

Adding Fitbit and Apple Watch sales to date, the two companies have sold 80 million devices. There will be 1.4 billion smartphones sold in 2016. Succeeding with fitness tracking today will increase the odds of winning with health monitoring tomorrow. There are very few things that will end up having more of a mass market appeal than wearables capable of health monitoring (Don't forget about AirPods.) This is why Apple is willing to take a fitness detour in its battle for the wrist.  

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