Rummaging through a dusty tin chest, an employee at the HMT company store in Connaught Place fiddles with a watch dial before finally looking up and gesturing towards his best watches on display.
His body language makes it clear there is no chance of small talk, and nostalgia is off the menu. The government has decided to pull the plug on HMT Watches and that is the reality weighing on his mind.
Ornamented with two rickety aluminium cupboards, a couple of wobbly wooden chairs, and a glass counter behind a work space, the store lies nestled in one of the many by-lanes of New Delhi’s commercial centre.
HMT, India’s native, government-backed watch brand was set up in 1962, with aid from Japan’s Citizen. Even though the company produced mechanically strong watches, flaunting clean and elegant designs, they made their debut at a time when household incomes ran low.
Running in losses for over a decade, the iconic brand which carved a niche for itself in several Indian hearts and houses is on its way out after 53 years. There is no revival in store for the brand that flaunted the ‘Desh ki Dhadkan’ punchline and prided itself on being the timekeeper of the nation.
“This was bound to happen sooner than later because of changing tastes of the younger generation,” says Rajiv Gupta, manager of a private firm in Jaipur.
According to Rajiv, HMT’s fatal flaw was not changing with times. “The company targeted the young generation but priced watches to fit only the pockets of middle-aged and well-off consumers.
“I bought my first HMT watch in 1990 and have quite a few fond memories. In three words, I would describe the brand as durable, simple and classy,” Rajiv adds.
Devyani Singh, a freelance environment researcher and consultant from Mumbai, says, “My grandfather owns two HMT watches, one of them 20 years old and they still work. My father was gifted one when he got married. He may have moved on to newer brands, but HMT remains a piece that he cherishes.”
Two years after its launch, India welcomed Titan, HMT’s soon-to-be-competitor. What should have been a wake-up call did little to shake up the company, which at one point in time enjoyed 34% share of the watch market in India.
Titan and other contemporary brands explored several options to appeal to the changing taste, creating an entirely separate line for women.
HMT remained stuck on analog, winding and quartz wrist and pocket watches, thus failing to bring in innovation, design and diversity to please the changing consumer demographics.
Does this then mean that HMT could not stand the test of time? Perhaps not.
Singh says, “We belong to a generation where there are newer brands that keep pace with the fast-changing styles, and HMT kind of fell behind. All that being true, I wouldn’t mind owning an HMT watch. My tastes have changed from when I was a teenager and the brand has an emotional connect in most Indian households.”
Perhaps the brand could’ve showcased itself in a better fashion. While its performance unarguably has been impressive, it paid little attention to aesthetics and packaging.
Perhaps the brand could’ve tried one last shot at survival and projected itself as an exclusively full-fledged antique brand.
Privatisation could have been an alternative.
Ambuj Gupta, coordinator, Brandwagon-The Marketing Club, New Delhi, says, “Privatisation would have led to generation of new ideas and the company could’ve repositioned itself to suit the needs of the present generation while highlighting their historical relevance.”
All said and done, it is beyond doubt that HMT will long be remembered for its old-world charm and the 53-year-long tryst with this country.
This is how twitter bid goodbye to the HMT legacy:
I know 5 ppl who bought HMTwatches on sentimental note after hearing of closure.At this rate, u may hear HMT calls off shut down,back in biz— ThePetticoatJournal (@iShrutiKohli) September 16, 2014