How Switzerland’s big players are, slowly but surely, joining the fray when it comes to selling watches online
by Chris Hall
Research by Caitlin McDonald
At the time of writing, it may not seem like the big Swiss brands are embracing e-commerce wholeheartedly. Of the genuinely big players, only Jaeger-LeCoultre, TAG Heuer and Cartier sell through their own e-boutiques; other substantial brands to have taken the plunge include Chopard, Montblanc, Bell & Ross and Piaget. In total, around three dozen Swiss brands have their own online retail outlet (including those for whom online is their sole platform). Just three years ago, however, that figure was much smaller, and as we shall later see, many more brands are poised to join them – including some very major ones.
The way each brand has approached the idea of online retail is immensely revealing. It should come as no surprise that young brands are, for the most part, better equipped for online customers – the Nomos store is hands-down the nicest shopping experience offered by a brand online so far – as are those whose customer base is more likely to be the right side of forty. For example, recent re-designs to TAG Heuer’s site have seen the introduction of large red “Shop Now” buttons beneath watches that are available to purchase online.
It’s big, it’s clear, it’s commercially-minded and it’s what a young customer expects to see. Purists might still have their noses out of joint at the brand’s pursuit of Cara Delevigne, David Guetta and Cristiano Ronaldo, but it all points to Jean-Claude Biver being right on the money.
As a rule, those brands with footholds in other luxury markets like fashion or accessories also tend to be ahead of the curve when it comes to offering a smooth experience; Montblanc, for example, is a good example of balancing the imperative to steer the idle browser towards a purchase against the off-putting calls-to-action that pepper the websites of high street fashion brands. No pop-ups or flashing “special offer” buttons here – for now, anyway – but an experience that’s sufficiently generic as to be familiar, with few clicks between product and purchase, and small signs that the brand understands its customer.
By contrast, if our experiences are anything to go by, completing a sale through some brand’s websites requires no small amount of determination and patience. It’s a far cry from walking the streets of Mayfair, where a brand would flinch at the thought that it might be left in the shade by a rival’s window display. And in some cases the execution is downright confusing: while researching this report we lost count of the number of times when “shop online” turned out to mean “phone up to order”, with watches listed in the e-store only actually available if you call the brand’s concierge service or a boutique. Fair enough if it’s a limited edition Grande Complication, but not so much for a core collection piece. Show that to a millennial audience and you might as well be asking them to send a fax.
This kind of basic inconsistency reveals the difficulty some brands have had acclimatising to online retail. There can be little rhyme or reason behind which watches are actually available online – often it depends on price, but not always. There is a tension between wanting to “tell the brand’s story” and giving the customer a smooth journey directly to the product, resulting in clunky site design. While it’s very easy to criticise from our keyboards, however, we recognise a lot of change is taking place over a short time – and we applaud the likes of Jaeger-LeCoultre for improving on some of these issues in recent months.
Waiting in the wings
So where are the other big brands? For some, it’s still a way off – and others are holding their cards very close to their chests. But looking back, you can track progress by a few more subtle indicators; for a good while, it was far too crude for a watch brand to even display its prices online (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it…). But little by little, that stance caved – now even Rolex does it, discreetly of course.
Another tip is to watch what’s taking place overseas. As Switzerland’s big brands soften their stance on online retail, it looks like the American market is seen as the natural test-bed environment to roll out an e-boutique. Breitling began selling online this April, offering 48-hour delivery across the entire USA. It makes sense: even for a brand with Breitling’s volumes, it’s hard to serve consumers over such a large area, and the US is a suitably established market to demo a new service and get reliable feedback.
Bulgari and Panerai are two others with US-only e-sales: Panerai CEO Angelo Bonati told QP: “We have made available a core selection of Panerai models, with a recommendation of straps and buckles with each model. We also offer the opportunity to be advised by our concierge. It has been very well received and it is being increasingly successful. But not everything is available online… we like to keep some surprises for our boutiques only.”
Bulova told QP that it too plans to open an e-commerce business in the US from October, with the potential to spread to other markets.
And like so many things, what starts in the USA soon finds its way across the Atlantic: Mr Bonati exclusively revealed that Panerai would soon start selling online in the UK, saying: “We are currently working on it, given that the UK is one of the avant-garde countries for online luxury shopping. It offers a great opportunity for our brand and we want to make sure we get everything right, including a great service to make it the perfect online experience.”
“We are currently working on selling online, given that the UK is one of the avant-garde countries for online luxury shopping” – Angelo Bonati, Panerai CEO
Elsewhere, Omega recently experimented with online sales, albeit in a click-and-collect format, when it launched the Speedmaster “Speedy Tuesday” limited edition. It was the brand’s first time using social media to directly promote sales and take customers on a journey from Instagram to placing an order.
Opening an e-boutique is far from simple, especially if you have no experience in the field. The hard-nosed commerce can be handled by a third party, but there’s still the web design and maintenance, the need for water-tight security and data management, 24/7 customer service and the logistics of shipping and stock management. Much of that will be handled by third parties, eating into the bottom line – and then there are questions of marketing. Commit to selling online and you need to make sure your SEO is on point; several brands we checked rank lower than well-established retail websites. And, in the words of one British watch brand executive, “social media is not kind to those who screw up online.”
With all that in mind, it’s tempting to ask what the imperative to sell direct really is. The major “multiple” watch retailers – as we will see – aren’t exactly doing a bad job online, after all. Leaving costs aside, one answer is control – the same reason brands have piled into bricks-and-mortar boutique ownership over the past five years. In a changing world, it suits brands to take back control of their sales. In a recent interview with SalonQP.com, Audemars Piguet CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias summed it up thus: “We cannot keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years and expect things to stay the way they are. The world is changing so fast, the consumer is changing, the new generation of consumer is not buying the way we buy today, so we have to adapt. Whether people like it or not, it’s the end of the people in between. Not just for watches. There are a lot of industries that will be challenged, when the only thing they provide is being in between the client and the product.”
He confirmed that the brand would soon be selling directly to consumers, adding: “I’m not saying it will be the end of the retailer. I’m saying the retailer will have to adapt to this new way of playing. And it might need to be closer to the brand than it is today.” In Part Three, coming next week, we look at what this all could mean for established retailers.
Those who don’t (yet…)
Some brands refuse to embrace e-commerce, but can they hold out forever? Here’s what some of the biggest had to say:
Audemars Piguet: None of the “big three” has opened its own e-boutique yet, but if one was going to, you would have bet AP would be first. And so it is: as detailed above, CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias recently told QP that they will soon sell direct to the consumer.
Girard-Perregaux: G-P highlights the need for a “long-term and privileged” relationship with its retailers. It’s available through the likes of The Watch Gallery, therefore. CEO Antonio Calce said “If in the near future online sales reaches the exacting standards required by the luxury goods industry and gives full satisfaction to all our clients around the world – that is, from every culture, and every age – we would be open to consider this new approach.”
Hublot: Perhaps surprisingly for a brand we associate with modern styles and methods, Hublot seems to have no plans to sell online. Brand director Benoit Lecigne told QP that “A luxury brand such as Hublot with a high average price and a small distribution network will not consider selling directly online to avoid cannibalising its retailers.”
Patek Philippe: The least likely to ever take this step: a spokesperson for the brand said that “selling online does not correspond to our philosophy of personal contacts and involvement with our clients when selling a watch. The experience of seeing the watch in person is essential”, and went on to confirm there are no plans for this stance to change.
Rolex: No official comment, but sources close to the brand say it’s a case of “when”, not “if”, for Rolex to open its own e-boutique. Showing prices on its own site was a start, and that’s been followed up by a very softly-softly trial with a select few retailers allowing you to click and collect.
Vacheron Constantin: There have been no signs that Vacheron is engaging with the idea and no confirmation from the brand either. But we just wouldn’t rule it out, next year or further in the future.