Compared to a grand complication movement, watchmaking’s distribution model is easy to grasp. At its simplest, it involves a network of agents spread across geographic regions and liaising with individual points of sale. The first signs of upset came when brands started opening their own stores to sell their own products. Then, just when everyone appeared to have marked out their territory, the internet added a further layer of complexity. Now social media are embedded in every brand, more and more of which are coming round to the idea of e-commerce, no longer a dirty word in watchmaking circles. A recent example is Omega which has officially launched its first online platform, currently reserved for customers based in the United States. At the same time, TAG Heuer announced that from end November, all its collections would be available from Mr Porter, the online retail destination for men’s clothing and accessories.
The question is no longer so much when will watch brands take the e-commerce leap as how, or even who with? “We’ll all get there at some point, that’s for sure,” declared Edouard Meylan, CEO of H. Moser & Cie, at the recent Dubai Watch Week. “It costs more and more to reach customers. Online sales are clearly one way to reduce that cost. What matters is taking the right route. In certain regions, the Middle East for example, it’s vital that a brand also has a physical presence. In a country such as China, where we have brick-and-mortar stores, e-commerce opens doors where it’s impossible to go. On two conditions, however. One, that you find the right partner. Two, that the online customer experiences our brand environment exactly as he or she would in one of our stores.” Roles must be redefined, all the more so as certain brands are willing to sell online but only if they are the ones doing so.
“This is why, for every online sale we make directly, we pay the retailer closest to the delivery zone,” said Xavier de Roquemaurel, CEO of Czapek. “The internet has proven to be our only means of survival. Our Baselworld debut was a disaster given that we took just one order. It’s thanks to crowdfunding and a successful client-shareholder model that we were really able to launch the business. Obviously it’s a slightly different approach but when it comes to the internet and the opportunities it brings in terms of information and distribution, it would be wrong not to want to use them.” It’s about striking a balance, then, but also trust. “That’s how we’ve come to the mix of genres that’s currently taking shape,” proffered Maximilian Büsser, founder and CEO of MB&F. “It won’t be long before media are the new retailers and retailers are the new media. Why? Because the former have spent years building credibility and can now take advantage of that by offering customers the possibility to purchase watches through their site. As for the latter, they’ve realised they need to provide quality content to accompany products that no longer suffice in themselves. In any event, it’s about controlling brand image and information. The two now go together.”
The most logical solution in the bid to occupy this still relatively virgin territory could be collaboration between watch brands; but how often in the recent past have joint efforts produced anything in the way of tangible results, particularly in production? The landmark agreement between Tudor and Breitling to exchange calibres was both the start and the end of that trend. Suffice to say, it’s a road brands are unlikely to take. This leaves the question – and it’s an important one for independent brands – of the threshold above which an online purchase would seem totally incongruous. “Who’s going to buy a CHF 200,000 watch online?” asked Edouard Meylan in point-blank terms. Stéphane von Bühren, Business Director Watches at Christie’s, took a different angle. “In the auction world, collectors are perfectly familiar with the items proposed and an online presence has become essential.” Physical stores, online platforms, brand websites, media, multibrand retailers, bloggers… the distribution deck is still being shuffled, and whoever offers the best content could end up holding the best hand.