Dakota Watch Company started business in 1945, when Al Cooper leased counter space in department stores after World War II for servicing watches and other products. This morphed into a fix-it business and kiosk concept in the middle of enclosed shopping malls in the late 1960s. When sons Martin and David Cooper took over the fifteen “Cooper’s Fixery” stores in the early 1970s, they decided to concentrate on the sale and service of watches, and to make that the focus business – and the stores were renamed “Cooper’s Watch Works.” Today, the stores are called “Dakota Watch Company”, and there are more than 115 spread across the USA. I caught up with Martin Cooper in his Cincinnati, Ohio offices.
- Martin Cooper, Dakota Watch Company
We think it’s the right time to partner with other interesting brands that are not represented properly in the malls. There are many Swiss, Indian and American brands that would benefit greatly from the exposure of our mall-based stores.
Europa Star: How’s business?
Martin Cooper: We’ve been improving every year since the 2008 recession. We’re expanding again and looking for other partnering opportunities.
What do you like about watches?
MC: Everything. Watches are about design and function and they’re an extension of the wearer’s personality. Wearing a watch really is a personal statement.
How has your business changed in recent years?
MC: Smartphones and the Internet have had an effect on all business, but not so much the service business. Since the recession, it has been more about how the mall business has changed. The malls and surrounding retail were overbuilt in the 1990s and 2000s and the recession brought about a weeding out of the weaker malls which affected all retailers.
What is the secret of your success?
MC: Location, service and friendly, well-trained associates offering a unique product that sets itself apart from the mainstream watch manufacturers and retailers. The service and these unique products help to make our stores a destination.
What is your relationship like with other retailers?
MC: Because of our service and individuality we have an excellent relationship with other watch retailers and jewellers in and around the malls. Plus, we now design and produce exclusive timepieces for other national retailers and catalogue houses.
What makes Dakota Watch special?
MC: Being a smaller, fast-moving design group with our own retail testing grounds, we can turn ideas into product and place them into stores much quicker and more efficiently than the big guys.
What do you like about your job?
MC: Being the head of a design group and watching trends to ensure consumer needs are met at the retail level is what I like the most. I love the outdoors (fishing and jogging) and I’m always thinking of watch designs and new product to fit various activities. Five years ago my father was having trouble organizing and taking his medication on time. This led to a monthly organizing system and talking alarm clock called the MedCenter System. In addition to helping my father and many people with medication regimen, it also created a nice side business that fit right into our design and manufacturing expertise.
What don’t you like?
MC: Getting asked if people still wear watches!
Any advice for other retailers?
MC: Build strong relationships with your employees to make customer service a common goal for everyone’s success, whether in the retail stores or the home office.
What is the biggest challenge facing your stores right now?
MC: Keeping good benefits for our employees and keeping up with the new opportunities for expansion.
What is the biggest challenge facing the watch industry right now?
MC: Keeping watch designs fresh and fun while keeping the technology relevant.
How do you market your store?
MC: Strong visibility in the malls since millions of shoppers walk past our stores, we maintain a continuous flow of new product and promote it with dynamic signage. The customers recognize the Dakota name and are greeted by our professional employees who provide a positive experience. Our reputation helps establish loyal customers, so in the end a significant part of our marketing is our customers, through word of mouth.
Have you tried to distribute Dakota watches in other retail outlets? Was it successful?
MC: We market our watches and other products we design on our Dakota website and MedCenter Systems website and on Amazon.com.
Are you open to working with other watch companies to sell their watches in your stores?
MC: Yes. We think it’s the right time to partner with other interesting brands that are not represented properly in the malls. There are many Swiss, Indian and American brands that would benefit greatly from the exposure of our mall-based stores.
I am surprised that there are so few European or Asian fashion watch manufacturers serious about building their brands in the US malls. Our kiosk store concept is a perfect way to promote new ideas, service, and to build a brand. It’s a “shop in shop” in the middle of the malls, all where thousands of customers walk by each day. These brands must feel that the only way to penetrate the US mall market is through the department and jewellery stores, which now seem dominated by all the Fossil brands.
Casio (one of the hottest watches in the world) seems to only get a few feet of counter space in most department stores, while Timex might have one or two on-counter displays, and Swatch is only in the hottest tourist malls.
We are also looking forward to supporting one or two of the “smart” watch manufactures in the future – they will also need to be represented with a good information/sales and service representatives in the malls.
Is there a certain kind of watch in a particular price point that would work best?
MC: We carry all styles but pricing may have a limit. It depends on the demographics and quality of the mall, but I believe a kiosk operation may be limited to watches that retail for under $1,000.
Have you considered taking your operation international?
MC: Yes, but for now there are still too many opportunities in the US and really no need to go overseas at this time.
Who is your customer?
MC: We have something for anyone who shops the regional malls or visits our website. Our watches fall into a wide range of price points, for men, women, kids, outdoor, health, fun, novelty, dress, accessories and more.
How important is customer service?
MC: Customer service is everything in retail. How you greet and treat your customer is always the most important task. So, training our people to be experts in service and sales is our number one job.
Do you do repairs at your store? If not, how do you handle repairs?
MC: All battery replacement, pressure testing, bands and adjusting, are done on premises. Major repairs are sent to our trained watch repair team in Cincinnati.
How do you do training?
MC: We have an excellent training staff in place in the field and at our home office. Most is done on-site with our Area and Regional Management and followed up in Cincinnati with higher levels of training.
How important is security?
MC: Most malls are very secure and we have had only a handful of incidents over the past forty years. We have effective alarm and camera systems throughout our organization.
Are you optimistic about the future?
MC: We are very optimistic about the future. The wrist will always be a showplace for fashion and the most convenient way for people to tell time and receive important acknowledgments from their phone or even about their health. We think the connection of the watch and phone will be a huge part of our business in the future.
What will the watch industry look like five or ten years from now?
MC: Check back with me, but I’m sure Keith Strandberg will have climbed Mt. Everest wearing a Dakota Watch!
What does time mean to you?
MC: Time moves much too fast for me, we need to work on a watch to slow it down!
How long: Established in 1945
Number of stores: 115+
Employees: 500 to 550
Size of stores: 144 square foot average
Range of price: $30 to $300
Best-selling watch: Dakota Spider and Angler Watches
Source: Europa Star February - March 2014 Magazine Issue