AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
For millions of people, it's hard to imagine life without a smartphone, one that let's you call friends, search the Web and to know the time of day. Having a phone in the palm of your hand means, among other things, less need to look at your wrist to see if you're running late.
But Kaomi Goetz reports that the watch isn't dying, it's adapting.
KAOMI GOETZ, BYLINE: It's after five in Manhattan's busy SoHo shopping district. Monica Espitia is in a rush, looking for a watch. It's unusual because the 38-year-old never wears one.
MONICA ESPITIA: To be honest with you, it's been years. Probably 10 years. Since I've had a cell phone, I pretty much stopped wearing watches. And I just realized, last time I was on vacation and I didn't know what time it was.
GOETZ: Espitia's upcoming trip top Bali is the only reason she's breaking down now. And she's not been alone in having a bare wrist. Since 2005, the number of people buying watches has declined by millions. Meanwhile, nearly every adult has now acquired a cell phone, about 92 percent, according to research firm Experian Simmons.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GOETZ: Yet, walk into any American Apparel retail store, there alongside pastel-colored hoodies and boyfriend shorts, are rows and rows of watches - Casio calculator-style, prim and simple or gold and bold. At one store on the Lower East Side there are at least five different displays.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This small face is a simple one with a black band. It's really popular.
GOETZ: Up until a few years ago, American Apparel didn't even sell watches. But the struggled in recent years and was willing to experiment. So they tested with a few colorful novelty watches from decades ago.
MARSHA BRADY: People flipped out when they saw them.
GOETZ: Creative director Marsha Brady says they soon realized their tech-crazy customers craved something else - a sense of nostalgia. Many of the styles for sale are no longer in production. But they reminded 20-somethings of styles they saw as a kid.
BRADY: One of the most popular things that we hear when people are looking at the watches is, Oh, my God, I used to have that watch. And I think that's what draws people in initially. Vintage is a very big part of our aesthetic.
GOETZ: Last year the company sold 84,000 of them, the same year the iPhone released its latest version. This year, Brady says they expect watch sales to climb 30 percent higher.
Max Kilger is an analyst for Experian Simmons, a firm that tracks consumer behavior. He says retailers are finding there's still a market for watches, if they understand why.
MAX KILGER: With the increase in smartphone usage, it's caused the watch industry to kind of shift away from more utilitarian watches, which are less in demand now, and towards more fashion statement watches.
GOETZ: In other words, people - even those in their 20's and 30's - are buying watches, just not to tell time. They are people who use fashion to project their tastes - be it classic, retro or street style. Using a watch as a statement piece has always been true with the luxury market. And today, that's booming too. Just this month, auction house Sotheby's brought in its second-highest watch sale ever, nearly 13 million.
Back at American Apparel, 21-year-old fashion student Taylor Trentini says she always wears her big, gold-plated watch.
TAYLOR TRENTINI: Yeah, it's very much a fashion thing, I think. But it's a habit for me now. If I'm not wearing it, I feel lost.
GOETZ: And she even uses it to check the time, once in awhile.
For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is NPR News.