time-business


The last of the mohicans: the outrage of a small retailer

A LAST WORD TO START

October 2017


The last of the mohicans: the outrage of a small retailer

As part of our wide-ranging survey on the state of watch retail worldwide, we spoke with many retailers, both multi-brand and independent, as well as consultants, experts and e-commerce specialists, but we didn’t really touch upon the plight of small local watchmakers, a species rapidly approaching extinction.

O

ne small watchmaker, who has operated a tiny 20m2 shop in the centre of prosperous Geneva for more than forty years, alerted us to this omission with a salutary (metaphorical) slap in the face. He represents three mid-range Swiss brands, one of them for four decades, as well as selling second-hand watches and jewellery. He also buys gold for scrap – “That’s my lifeline,” he readily admits.

He is already past retirement age, but continues to open up his small shop every day. “Oh, it’s not for the money. I don’t really make money these days, but I love my work as a watchmaker. If I wasn’t doing that I would get bored.” But the one thing that really bothers him is “the contempt with which the brands have treated us, the little people. It hasn’t always been like this. We may be small, but they used to treat us with respect. We were considered partners. Small streams make big rivers. Today, not only are we ignored, but they’d actually prefer it if we disappeared.”

In his opinion, things have got significantly worse over the last four or five years. “In the past, the brands were scrupulously fair. I’ll give you an example. A client saw a watch in my shop, tried it on and liked it, but he didn’t buy it. He telephoned the watch company, told them he’d seen such-and-such a watch in my shop, and said he wanted to buy it from them direct. The company sold him the watch and spontaneously sent me my retail commission! Everything was done on trust.” To hear him talk about it, this spirit of fair play is long gone. “They began by chipping away at our margins, then they opened their own shops which offered every possible watch, then came the internet. Deliveries got slower and slower, and more than once I missed a sale because the watch was never delivered, or it was delivered too late for the anniversary that the watch had been ordered to commemorate. They knew what they were doing; they did it deliberately because they knew the client would go to their own shop or their website, and they could keep all the profits for themselves.”

The same goes for after-sales service. “It has become more difficult to get hold of parts. Sometimes it’s impossible. It’s not a ‘service’ any more, it’s become a ‘profit centre’, as they call it. For clients, the cost has doubled or tripled. And don’t get me started on turnaround times. Clients wait weeks and pay ridiculous prices, when I can do the same thing in a day. And I’ll even make you a coffee while you wait!” Will he ever sell his shop? “Mission impossible. We’re the last of the Mohicans.”