Watch brands and retailers are at long last embracing online sales – but the figures don’t yet stack up. We look at how buying watches has changed from visiting a bricks and mortar store to a digital journey.
By Chris Hall
Here’s the thing about the watch world. You will read a lot – and not just on SalonQP.com – about what’s new, or “innovative”. That’s to be expected; we love that an industry as fundamentally anachronistic as the luxury watch business can be so full of individuals dedicated to toying, tinkering and improving by leaps and bounds the concept of mechanical timekeeping.
But making watches is only one side of this business. Of course, without the gleaming manufactures, intense R&D laboratories and hushed assembly lines we just wouldn’t have watches. But without distributors and retailers, boutiques, jewellers and department stores, well, we just wouldn’t have watches. And this side of things has been a little bit less willing to “reinvent tradition”, as a marketing department might have it. Only a fraction of new watches can be bought online, with the most popular brands, including Rolex, totally unavailable. Not everyone can easily reach London boutiques, and often in regional shops you face a reduced choice (with some notable exceptions). It’s hardly befitting the wide range of watches being produced in the world.
Some brands have built a business around online sales, and a few of the big Swiss firms did recognise early on the need for an e-store; Chopard, Cartier and Bell & Ross to name a couple. And their ranks have been bolstered in the last eighteen months, with the likes of Panerai, Breitling, TAG Heuer and Hamilton all dipping a toe in direct online sales.
More visible perhaps has been the full of individuals dedicated growth of online retailers. The giants of to toying, tinkering and the high street, aware of the risk of their efforts. The Watch Gallery (imminently re-branding to Bucherer.com, following its acquisition by the European firm earlier this year) has added Jaeger-LeCoultre and Cartier to its books; UK owner David Coleridge claims they outsell the brands’ own e-stores. And taking the fight to the established names with great energy has been Mr Porter, which now stocks IWC, Montblanc, Baume & Mercier, Bremont, Ressence, Zenith and Junghans, up from absolutely nothing a couple of years ago.
So why do I say nothing has changed in how we buy watches? Isn’t this evidence of a changing marketplace? It seems that the maxim “if you build it, they will come” isn’t quite working out for the watch brands: according to luxury analysts at MainFirst Bank, online sales still account for only around three per cent of watch sales.
Some – like the most eminent manufactures (particularly those looking after things for the next generation) – will hold this up as evidence that watches are qualitatively different. As high-value luxury items that we often form a strong personal connection with, they just don’t lend themselves to the “add to basket” mentality. The internet might be good for learning about the watches, but it takes a trained salesperson to part you from your earnings.
Except that is demonstrably untrue. In January this year, Omega launched the Speedy Tuesday special edition. It took pre-orders via Instagram and sold all 2012 watches in under six hours. That’s a £4,000 watch that no-one had ever held in their hands. Elsewhere, Hodinkee has performed the same trick with limited-run pieces from Zenith, TAG Heuer and (lest you think there’s any reticence to spend five figure sums online) Ressence and Vacheron Constantin.
Furthermore, if you started a watch brand in the last few years the chances are you sidestepped the traditional bricks-and-mortar retail model entirely. Christopher Ward does very nicely out of online sales (and it helps them keep prices down) and other, younger brands such as Farer or Marloe are building their presence on a foundation of digital sales. In the vintage world, the likes of A Collected Man are proving that marquee pieces can sell sight unseen.
These have in common two things. First, the seller – be it blog, start-up or mega-brand – has ensured the audience is not just present but keen, mainly through genuine social media engagement. Second, the product is available exclusively online, and in one place only, removing any competition for sales. This last is the most significant factor: a reluctance to cannibalise the entrenched, territorial model of distributor-retailer or to eat into the sales of the (expensive to run) Bond St boutiques is holding watch brands back from really committing to the internet. This needs to change if they are serious about attracting the next generation of collectors.