Can the online market place replicate the success and personal touch of the traditional brick-and-mortar store experience? Actors of the watch industry have their say about this critical question and share their mixed experiences.
• The watch industry has followed the growing trend in online retail, but with mixed results.
• Independent start-up watch brands have benefited greatly in terms of online sales and brand building.
• However, authorized luxury watch dealers have struggled to do so, and most of their business remains in physical stores.
The Internet has started to “democratize” the watch industry.
By providing additional channels by which to connect with consumers, it has on the one side contributed to both retailers’ and manufacturers’ competitiveness.
On the other side, it has created trouble for the industry, with among other things the boost in sales of watches by unauthorized dealers in the so-called ‘grey’ market.
But one of the most critical questions today remains, without doubt, the following: how to efficiently use the web to complement a “physical” strategy? Does the web really signal a deep change in the way the watch industry conducts its daily business in stores?
We spoke with two retailers and two watch brands, of which half are so-called “pure players” (active only on the web). Here is what we found.
Co-founder of Hyde Park Jewelers (Denver, U.S.A.)
“Hyde Park went online in the mid-1990’s, and today we operate two fully functional e-commerce websites. We now have a dedicated staff that works solely on our digital marketing efforts (website, email marketing, social media).
Using a multi-channel strategy allows us to interact more directly and frequently with our clients, through the platforms most relevant to them. It helps enhance our understanding of our clients and also allows us to determine what matters on a client-by-client basis.
Online, we also have to balance promoting our own brand, while also representing our brand partners. We must adhere to their individual online policies and guidelines. Rolex only allows us to display their badge in the top right corner of our website, which links externally to their site.
Cartier and Omega require us to embed their own online content within our website, known as an iframe. In many cases we are restricted from selling or even displaying their products online.
In fact, we currently have only two watch brands that can actually be purchased through our websites. Ultimately, we are very limited in creating our own user experience for our audience.
- Michael Pollack
“We understand and respect that watch brands wish to preserve the integrity of their own global branding. However, I think there are several challenges with their strategies.” Michael Pollack
Ideally, we would like to have a consistent user experience across all brands, that serves as an extension of the in-store experience. We understand and respect that watch brands wish to preserve the integrity of their own global branding.
However, I think there are several challenges with their strategies: foremost, Google searches do not differentiate between the embedded iframe content of the brands on our website, and our own content.
And we are usually not provided with digital content by the brands in advance, meaning we are always trying to catch up with their public developments. Also, the majority of consumers do not discern between an authorized retailer with an online presence, and the remaining ‘grey market’ sites. The result is that our luxury environments are simply becoming “showrooms” for consumers, who then go online and take a risk by buying from an unauthorized dealer.
The online experience has its positives. It has expanded our brand, opening global opportunities beyond our regional store locations.
Our online outlets also serve to bring in customers for in-store sales. However, online sales currently account for less than 1% of our overall business. Without being able to sell all watch brands online, it is challenging to keep up with the brick-and-mortar model.
I strongly believe there is an opportunity for brands and their authorized dealers to create win-win online sales strategies.”
Owner of Island Watch (Long Island, U.S.A.)
“Island Watch was established in 2003 as a solely internet-based retailer. I was actually brought up in the retail industry.
My father owned a physical retail store, and I witnessed the issues he encountered. Online shopping represents a big shift in the way people purchase items. For example, cultivating customer data allows us to change our offerings to our customers, and fine-tune our selection.
This is something that is not as easy to accomplish in conventional retail.
With the luxury watch brands dominating, it was clear that lesser-known watch brands were underrepresented, particularly on the web. We also realized that people living in the U.S.A. would rather purchase from a domestic seller than purchase from overseas. As a result, we started importing watches to sell to a local consumer base. Overtime, we have become a worldwide seller.
- Marc Frankel
“Cultivating customer data allows us to change our offerings to our customers, and fine-tune our selection. This is something that is not as easy to accomplish in conventional retail.” Marc Frankel
Our store became more popular organically, starting with the forum community. To this day, I feel our biggest referral audience is from the online watch community. We have also been active on Facebook for several years. It is increasingly playing an important role in our online presence, and it will continue to grow.
The watch community started talking about us as a ‘go-to’ store for excellent watches and honest service. It is because I treat customers how I would expect to be treated. Sometimes I can spend 30 minutes on the phone with someone, without making a sale.
But I am still thorough! We answer emails within the hour. And because we stock everything, we can give customers more precise details about the watches that might be missed in online photos or descriptions. After the sale, the service keeps going. Any issues with the purchase, we take care of it quickly and efficiently.
However, while the Internet is extremely powerful, it can also be very finicky. One or two ‘bad experiences’ propagate online like ripples in a lake. This places a greater demand on service, ensuring every customer is beyond satisfied.”
Founder of SevenFriday (Zurich, Switzerland)
“Today, the online space is part of everybody’s life. It is simply too important to ignore. I have always appreciated the ability to order online, and my wish was to extend this service to the watch world. So we have been online since the first minute of our operation.
But ‘online’ means many things, not just online sales. It means use of the various social media channels, like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter. We don’t make our own branding, the online connection with the public does!
Of everything we do online, it is paramount to ensure that we portray our brand according to our core values.
That means keeping things consistent, cross-fertilizing across different channels, engaging in two-way communication, all to remain personally close to our followers. The web is not as impersonal as some people want us to believe. To the contrary, it provides a great opportunity to be closer to global markets, and to learn through input and great discussions.
“At the moment, only about 10% of our sales are online, and we expect this percentage to increase. It helped younger clients learn about our brand, because they mostly gather product information online.” Daniel Niederer
Offering the online opportunity to customers is first and foremost. At the moment, only about 10% of our sales are online, and we expect this percentage to increase. But the web is clearly one of the most important elements that helped grow our brand quickly, and bring us to where we are today.
It helped younger clients learn about our brand, because they mostly gather product information online. Online communication, interaction and engagement are critical pillars of brand building, irrespective of sales figures. Of course, the other important pillar is the real-life experience and physical interaction. As always, I believe it is about finding the right balance.
Today, the web provides an opportunity for new brands to compete with the established big brands, without having millionaire investors.
The web was necessary for us because we didn’t have huge sums to invest, nor did we want to increase our prices to finance exorbitant marketing expenditures. These kinds of possibilities are the greatest game changers I have seen in our industry.”
Co-founder of Christopher Ward (London, U.K.)
“Online retailing is eroding the perception that luxury goods must always be experienced in a physical store. The luxury watch industry was slow to respond to the trend and underestimated its true potential. But we saw an amazing window of opportunity and Christopher Ward London was launched in 2004 as a purely online luxury watch brand.
Certainly, we saw the potential operational benefits. Online retail has a much lower capital requirement, and keeps overhead costs low. We discovered the astonishing levels of mark-up by the major brands. The average was between 10 and 15 times from cost, and the highest mark-up was 37 times greater. We realized that a gap existed for a challenger brand to go into the market, echoing the quality of the top brands like TAG Heuer, Breitling or Longines, but at a lower cost. The July 2014 launch of our in-house movement, Calibre SH21, further enhanced our challenger brand personality.
Crucially, it was never only an issue of cost. It was absolutely vital to not compromise on quality, choice and service. We produce high quality in-house watches. And we back our product with what we believe is the most comprehensive guarantee in the world of luxury watches. A quality guarantee is absolutely vital in breaking down consumer resistance to buying a luxury watch online.
- Mike France
We personalize the online and sales experience as much as possible. Our Service Manager is celebrated by customers for her 24/7 responsiveness.” Mike France
Our holistic luxury experience extends through a chain, from the first impressions upon seeing our website, to the quality of our after-sales service. That chain has to not only be strong at every link, but it also needs to be as human as possible. As such, we personalize the online and sales experience as much as possible. Our Service Manager, Wera, is also celebrated by customers for her 24/7 responsiveness. She has become something of an icon of the brand!
But even with a fantastic product, you have to develop a strong narrative to provoke strong and personal conversations. The website is designed to reflect our brand personality: engaging, approachable, trustworthy. Digital conversations need to be two-way to be truly effective. People online want to connect and share.
They don’t want a bland, characterless corporate response. Our blogs, for instance, give visitors a personalized insight into our interests. And much of our digital content is inspired and often written by myself and my two co-founders, Chris Ward and Peter Ellis.
Another aspect of the authentic link with our customers is the CW Forum. It was created in 2006 purely from a fan-based initiative.
The forum influences our development program, including customer feedback on new design concepts. Our online and print CW magazine also enables us to further share lifestyle features with our customers, building brand personality and loyalty.
Both are clear sales drivers, accounting for a significant percentage of our footfall and sales, because customers share them.
I think that many luxury watch owners feel a little let down by the lack of personalization and personality of some major watch brands. We are determined to avoid being placed with the crowd of luxury watch brands that are often perceived as faceless and homogenous.
For us, the online presence is, ironically, a more personal environment than a store.”
Source: Europa Star December - January 2015 Magazine Issue