In 1992, the queen of England generated a buzz, without grasping all the consequences, when she talked of her annus horribilis. Well aware of the double-entendre, the players on the French watchmaking scene have been careful not to apply the term to 2017. Nevertheless, it pretty well sums up the mood of the past few months. "Things started well the first half of the year, but after that they went downhill,” explains Benjamin Cymerman, general manager of retailers Heurgon, in Paris. 2017 has been a bad year for the watchmaking trade in France, almost as bad as the disastrous 2016.
The Swiss watch export statistics come to the same conclusions as the studies by Comité Francéclat, the French inter-professional jewellery and tableware body. The slight additional percentage drop is made less bitter, however, by the hopes, ignited by certain indicators, of an end to the crisis.
A resumption of growth in the euro zone, a return by Asian customers, no major terrorist attack for several months: the industry has stopped quaking, although not yet completely over the worst. This is proven by the fact that numerous medium-sized retailers are still closing down. Others are still, for better or for worse, but mainly for worse, losing major brands.
The French market is proving more bicephalous than ever. On the one hand, the country is still the world number one tourist destination, with its capital as the spearhead, bolstered by the French Riviera. “We have a mainly foreign customer base, and custom from the countries of the Middle East is pretty good. Those customers are very fond of jewelled watches and jewellery in general,” adds Benjamin Cymerman. And although the distinction between watch and jewellery is not always obvious, numerous retailers are saying that they have been “saved by jewellery”.
Parallel to this, large sales outlets are expanding, or pushing their advantage. Leaders like Arije and Dubail are continuing to expand, while the giant Bucherer, which arrived in France four years ago, is still suffering structural losses. The race to invest is one way of positioning themselves for the future, but is based on a distribution model which, increasingly, is being challenged by changes in customer behaviour.
On the other hand, local customers have their own habits, less profligate, certainly, than those of buyers in the Place Vendôme and other luxury addresses, but which underpin a dense network of medium-sized retail- ers across the country. These customers tend to be neglected when one focuses on the ten most prestigious brands, which are often absent from second-tier cities. “The average shopping basket of our buyers has shrunk, permanently,” Benjamin Cymerman goes on. “They’re asking for less expensive parts, fewer grand complications, more steel. And that’s what the brands are launching.” Given that this type of timepiece represents the reference choice in cities of average size, they should come out of it relatively unscathed. But then the provinces never developed a taste for the hard drug from which the world market is still suffering the withdrawal symptoms – that of Chinese customers bi en by the buying bug. “Their behaviour has changed too. They buy less expensive, less ostentatious items, more sure values...” After the laissez-faire of 2016 and the frenzy of 2017, rehab will continue in 2018.