Garmin’s Place in the Fitness Wearables Ecosystem

on January 24, 2019
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The fitness wearables market has been brutal of late, with more exits than entrances over the past couple of years. Apple leads in global shipments, followed by Xiaomi, Fitbit, and Huawei, with the remaining 50% of the market divided between 20+ companies. Apple’s share has risen as the category has tilted toward the ‘smartwarch’ segment. But in the fitness-oriented segment, there are really five players of note: Garmin, Polar, Suunto, Fitbit, and Apple. Garmin, Polar, and Suunto have always been very focused on the fitness segment, more recently adding ‘smartwatch’ products in order to compete more broadly, while Fitbit and Apple have added devices and features to become more competitive in the fitness part of the market.

Among these, it’s interesting to take a closer look at Garmin, which has been the market share leader in the higher end fitness part of the market. They’re the Strava of the wearables segment. They’ve held a pretty steady ~5% share of the market for some time, and are still the favored products among more serious athletes. Apple has taken some share from Fitbit, but not really from Garmin. And indications are Apple’s future emphasis will tilt in the health direction (which, while not easy, makes total sense). [Note: this commentary is focused on the fitness/wearables segment, not other Garmin product lines such as automotive, marine, etc.]

As a fitness enthusiast, I’ve spent a lot of time with devices from all the major vendors. But it’s only more recently that I’ve plunged into the Garmin ecosystem, as the owner of the Forerunner 645, one of their newer and high-ish end devices (~$400). My conclusion is that Garmin makes excellent devices that outperform the competition just enough. My advice for them is that they would be better to focus on the needs of their core market, than trying to compete more broadly in the wearables segment.

First, my quick impressions on the overall Garmin experience so far. (this is not a detailed review – the best in the biz is Ray Maker). I find that the device itself does better than most of its competition in areas that fitness folks care enough: GPS accuracy, support for multiple activities, waterproof and supports swimming, and measures a few extra fitness performance metrics that its competitors don’t (some useful, others gimmicky and not accurate). Battery life, particularly for a device that has on-board GPS, is excellent. It is in the same basic league as its competition in two areas that are now standard on most higher-end devices: wrist-based heart rate monitoring and sleep tracking. None of the major players has really nailed sleep tracking yet – what they offer is fine as a general indicator, but not accurate enough in areas such as REM sleep, time awake, and so on to be useful to a practitioner. One other point on the Forerunner is that the build quality is excellent. It feels like a premium product that will last for some time. My experience with some other products in this category is that they seem almost disposable – expect them to last 12-18 months, then it’s back to the well.

Garmin’s lack of specific support for certain popular activities is a disappointment. Common activities such as Crossfit (and numerous equivalents) can only be measured in a generic “Cardio” setting. There’s “indoor cycling”, which is too generic a category for those who do a lot of spin classes (and don’t want to get into the whole Peloton ecosystem). They have no additional metrics beyond time and heart rate for popular activities such as tennis. Even a little more transparency on how a more intense activity (say, an hour of singles compared to an hour of doubles) would affect ‘intensity minutes’ or calorie burn, would be helpful.

I also believe that Garmin’s user interface, on the device and the Garmin Connect app, can be overly complex and obtuse. The standard bearers here are Fitbit and Apple. Garmin actually has quite a bit more functionality and customization options in some areas, but the experience of figuring out what the device/app can do and how do to it is not at all intuitive. This is definitely a ‘gotta read the manual’ if one is going to take full advantage of the product. One major positive is customer support. Direct, free phone support to knowledgeable experts is the best I’ve experienced in the category. It would be reason alone for me to own a Garmin device over a Fitbit device that claims to do many of the same things.

The app ecosystem, called Connect IQ, is a mixed bag. There are some useful and terrific apps, but also a good number that are sort of incomplete or have not been updated in some time. I’d also recommend Garmin put greater effort into curation and advice with regard to apps. There’s also lot of triage to go through to see if XYZ app is supported on your particular Garmin device. And there are some oddities such as the distinction between an app and a widget, etc.

More broadly, what I’ve seen over the past 12-18 months in this category is the major OEMs trying to broaden their market by introducing new devices or features, but this has resulted in quality dilution. For example, Apple has added more fitness-oriented features to the Apple Watch Series 4, but has not really produced a good enough product to encroach into the Garmin-Polar-Suunto crowd. Conversely, Garmin has added music support to some devices, and even LTE connectivity, but the experience does not feel best-of-breed like the rest of the experience on their products.

If I were CEO of Garmin, for the fitness segment of the business, I’d focus my 3-year plan on going from 5% of the market to 10% of the market, by really owning the fitness watch/wearable category. Don’t try to match Apple or Fitbit at every pace. Focus on the fitness enthusiast/athlete segment, with the following priorities:

  • Extend leadership and be best-of-breed in areas that active people care about. GPS performance, heart rate accuracy, and battery life.
  • Continue to add and refine metrics of particular interest to the fitness/athlete segment (V02 max, etc.)
  • Add real support and metrics for certain popular activities, with specific algorithms for those sports.
  • A more curated, athlete-centric app ecosystem.
  • Work on the UI, both on the device and on the app. This has always been a Garmin weak spot. It doesn’t have to be as good as Apple’s or Fitbit’s, but it needs to be in the league, to make sure they hold onto the fitness segment of the market.
  • Don’t go down the rabbit hole of matching every last ‘smartwatch’ feature. If your base thinks your priorities are adding LTE connectivity to compete with Apple Watch, rather than improving core features and functionality, they’ll start poking around for other products.

These are ways Garmin can help build share in a segment that has been very loyal to the company over the years.