It’s hard to imagine that e-commerce was once unmentionable in luxury circles. From virtually inexistent at the start of the decade, opportunities to buy luxury watches online have mushroomed; in fact barely a month has gone by this year without news of a web-based partnership or the launch of an online store. Once reluctant to enter the digital arena, a growing number of watch brands are now selling their products either on their own e-commerce website or through established third-party platforms. Retailers’ sink-or-swim reaction has been to move into digital themselves. One of the most recent newcomers to this immaterial world is watchdreamer.com, the first online venture to offer fine watch leasing in Switzerland. It’s these digital upstarts that are challenging luxury brands on their home turf, and taking control from the ones still lingering on the sidelines.
Online store or platform?
There are now more fine watch brands selling online than not. The most recent announcement came from Panerai. After China and the United States, in October the Richemont-owned brand broke the news that it was extending its e-commerce business to Switzerland and Europe as part of its revamped website. Users benefit from a range of services such as a concierge, available by chat or by phone, gift-wrapping and a personalised gift note, a choice of payment methods, product availability enquiries and returns, as well as free delivery to stores in London, Paris and Munich.
A month before this, in September, it was Carl F. Bucherer’s turn to announce its tie-up with JD.com, China’s second largest e-commerce platform after alibaba.com, boasting over 290 million active customers and net revenues of US$55.7 billion in 2017. Bucherer joins H. Moser & Cie, Eberhard & Co, Chopard, Zenith and TAG Heuer, all of which have been won over by the platform’s non-negligible efforts to create an environment relevant to luxury goods. Elsewhere, Roger Dubuis and Breitling both have deals with the London-based Mr Porter, since November and May respectively. The platform’s line-up of eighteen high-end watchmakers includes Ressence, Oris, Bell&Ross and just about every Richemont brand – which makes sense knowing that Mr Porter is owned by Richemont through the Yoox-Net-a-Porter group which it acquired this spring for US$ 2.8 billion.
Retailers take up the gauntlet
At retailers, the situation is also changing apace. Given the fast-rising number of own-name boutiques (i.e. owned and operated by the brands themselves) alongside expanding e-commerce, it’s a matter of survival. Of the traditional retailers, Bucherer, which has 104 points of sale worldwide, is one of the most active online. After launching its first e-commerce site in Switzerland in December last year, followed this January by the takeover of Tourneau – the United States’ biggest offline and online retailer –, Bucherer continued full steam ahead with the opening in April of a digital platform in Germany. The family-owned Swiss firm has taken advantage of the experience acquired by British distributor The Watch Gallery, bought by Bucherer in 2017 and which has operated an online store for many years. Bucherer’s website carries some two dozen watch brands, including Blancpain, Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre, in addition to its own line of Fine Jewellery. It’s interesting to note that from Monday to Saturday, customers buying online can consult real-life sales associates for advice and help in choosing the right product for them.
Les Ambassadeurs, which has stores in five Swiss cities, is following on its rival’s heels and, last September, put its assortment of some 1,500 watches by 38 brands online. This new e-shopping site offers services on a par with the products sold: free delivery by post (under certain conditions), click & collect from one of the five stores, hand-delivery by a concierge, etc. A watchmaker will even come to your home to familiarise you with your new purchase.
Breaking down boundaries
Even so, don’t go searching for Rolex or Patek Philippe on either of these retailers’ sites. Les Ambassadeurs doesn’t carry them while Bucherer invites interested parties to submit an enquiry. This is because both manufacturers remain aloof to the possibility of selling online. As does Chanel, although its watches are available for purchase at lesambassadeurs.ch: in a globalised world, brands are hard pressed to keep control of every channel.
It's really taken off. I've had lots of calls from brands wanting to congratulate me and express an interest.
Launched November 8th, watchdreamer.com is a telling example. It is the first site in Switzerland to offer credit solutions. The start-up, which has the backing of Creditum, carries around 600 watches by some 30 brands which customers can buy in monthly instalments (from six to 120 months), once their application has been accepted and after making a 10% down payment. “I don’t buy the watches directly,” founder Nicolas Hildenbrand explains. “Instead, I have partnerships with authorised retailers in French-speaking Switzerland which you could say make their stock available.” Ten days after launching, the site had already made 80 sales, including 39 on the first day. Hildenbrand is delighted: “It’s really taken off. I’ve had lots of calls from brands wanting to congratulate me and express an interest.”
While 90% of the watches on offer are new, the site also carries a few dozen pre-owned pieces that come from a well-known Genevan dealer. “That way I can offer more by Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, which aren’t easy to come by even in stores.” At the time of writing, there were 10 Royal Oak and 21 Patek Philippe on the site. Together with 77 Rolex, most of them new. The biggest shake-up is perhaps from the booming pre-owned market. Acquired by Richemont in June this year, watchfinder.co.uk specialises in certified pre-owned watches. The platform has more than 4,000 watches by 58 brands for sale, including no fewer than 1,250 Rolex – by far the most represented brand. Paradoxically, this makes Richemont indirectly one of the biggest Rolex dealers in the world!