Thoughts on E-Commerce and Watches
Last year I wrote an article entitled How to Save the Swiss Watch Industry and in it I opined the glacial progress of the watch industry towards online sales. Back then there were only a handful of brands offering an e-commerce platform, some opting for complete stores and others treating the service as an online intermediary. The majority of brands treated the internet as if it were a bird in the house; you don't know how it got there, you don't know what to do with it now its here, and you can't figure out how to get rid of it.
In the last 14 months, things have changed
Before, it was a common line of thinking that the more affordable a watch is, the more likely you can buy it online. Hamilton, Tissot, Christopher Ward, Stowa and many other brands, which have watches well under $1000 dollars, have been all been able to be bought online for several years now. Nomos, who sell watches from $1500 up to $20,000, have been big supporters of e-commerce from the very beginning, but now more brands selling luxury watches are starting to see the light as TAG Heuer, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Cartier and most recently Omega all have some form of online shop. If a brand doesn't offer sales directly on their website, it is likely that they will be sold through a dedicated online store like Mr. Porter. The British 'online retail destination' sells watches from (but not limited to) Baume & Mercier, Bremont, Junghans, Officine Panerai, Piaget and Zenith. I'm not an avid reader of Mr. Porter but with articles like "The Art of the After-Dinner Drink" and "What's Next for Private Jets?", its clear that they offer an extension of the 'luxury in-store experience' that many brands value nearly as much as their watches.
The two most recent changes in regards to e-commerce in the watch industry are Omega opening an online store, and Hodinkee becoming an authorized dealer for 7 brands
First, let's talk about Omega. In a recent vlog, I spoke about their decision to start an e-commerce platform but I wanted to stress again how much of a big deal this is. Other brands beat Omega to the punch with e-Commerce, but I believe Omega's name carries more weight among non-watch people. Whether it's because of James Bond, the Olympics or just good product placement, Omega is much more of a household name than IWC or Jaeger-LeCoultre and that familiarity could translate into sales now that anyone in the United States can have a watch on their doorstep in 48 hours. The only brand, in my opinion, that has more influence is Rolex and if Rolex were to start selling watches online it would be a game-changer.
The internet is the great equalizer when shopping. With an internet connection, a farmer in Montana has just as much opportunity to buy an Omega as a banker in Chicago. Before that wasn't the case, as some states in America didn't have an Omega dealership, meaning you either drove for hours to buy in person or you risked buying on the grey market. Whilst buying through Omega will mean you pay full price, I believe that people will value the security and legitimacy of buying direct more than getting 15% off on a potentially dodgy site. I also don't agree in principle with the grey market as it undermines the work done by brands to create watches, and it makes the work of authorized dealers that much harder.
On November 13th, 2017, Hodinkee became an authorized dealer for Grand Seiko, Longines, Nomos, Oris, Ressence, TAG Heuer, Vacheron Constantin and Zenith. This time the watches for sale weren't custom limited editions created for Hodinkee, but standard references available right out of the catalog. Hodinkee's collection is small compared to those of a multi-brand jewelers, and is curated to reflect the taste and interests of the staff and the millions of readers the site gets every month. In typical Hodinkee style, they saw what was on the market and then aimed to beat it. Overnight shipping in the United States, an additional one year warranty on top of the brands, beautiful photography that actually shows you a watch (not a make believe rendering) and well-researched biographies of all the watches. Mr. Porter's online store does have similar photography but the Editor's Notes come across as a copy & pasted from a press release, whereas Hodinkee's come across as a love letter to that particular watch. If you run an online store for any product, then you should look at Hodinkee and copy as much of it as you can because they have knocked it out of the park.
However with all that said, I'd be amiss if I didn't mention my personal objections to what Hodinkee ARE DOING
I fundamentally believe that a major source of industry news should not sell products from companies they actively report on. Even if the Hodinkee editorial staff are left completely in the dark about purchasing decisions made by the shop and are allowed to write whatever they like regarding brands on sale, some of the traffic generated by the editorial content will flow towards the shop. Hodinkee insist that the shop team operate separately from the editorial staff, but the shop's content is still shared and promoted on the same pages as the editorial content (The Hodinkee Facebook page has 181,834 likes on Facebook, but the Hodinkee Shop only has 1,373). Obviously it makes business sense to utilize a massive following on social media to promote sales, but it undermines the separation between editorial and commerce. There, rant over.
How to craft a luxury experience online?
Many brands are all too eager to put all of their Faberge eggs into one 'luxury experience' basket. (I apologize for such a tortured metaphor). The showroom that smells like you imagine how George Clooney smells like, the glasses of champagne and the flirtatious arm touches of the beautiful sales assistant aren't there by accident, they are there to create a luxury experience which adds perceived value to the product. As Ben Clymer says in his article about the new Hodinkee shop, "Champagne and caviar is fun the first time, and it still might get a certain type of buyer excited about a watch, but for me, and for many HODINKEE readers, we know everything about the product already, and we just want the experience to be as easy and painless as possible". The problem with e-commerce is that you can't control the shopping experience of customers at all, they could be sitting on a private jet, browsing their phone whilst hiking or just sitting on the toilet. It is that lack of control that I believe the remaining brick & mortar traditionalists fear losing.
With more and more expensive watches being available to buy online, the impetus falls on the ultra-luxury brands like Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and others to pick up the slack or be left behind. These brands pride themselves on being the best of the best, catering to the wealthiest and most prestigious clients by making some astounding timepieces. Yet why can I order mundane products on Amazon and have them arrive the next day, but when I go to Patek's website I have to physically visit a store? Why do I have a better shopping experience buying a light bulb than a hand-crafted timepiece from a centuries old brand? Inconvenience is antithetical to the idea of luxury in 2017 and the sooner brands realize it the better.