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Time online: The rise and rise of digital watch boutiques

16 August 2018• Written by Zoe Dickens

While almost every other luxury sector has embraced the boom in online shopping, fine watch brands have long been resistant to explore e-commerce – until now. With more and more brands making the move online, Zoe Dickens investigates how fine timepieces became just a click away…

Buying a fine timepiece has long been something of a lengthy process. Even if you’ve done your research and you know what you want, your nearest boutique may not exactly be close and, should you have your eye on a new release or limited edition, there’s the very real chance you'll have to wait for it to arrive from the other side of the world.

It is, of course, this exclusivity and the thrill of the chase that delights many timepiece collectors but, for those looking for something simpler and quicker, the reluctance of high-end watch brands to embrace e-commerce in the way that the luxury fashion and jewellery sectors have has always been a little perplexing. “Some watch brands have a traditional way of thinking and cater toward the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” market,” explains Fiona Firth, buying director at Mr Porter. “These brands are very successful but may find they have to evolve with consumer habits.”

Ressence Type 1 MRP 42mm Rose Gold, Titanium And Leather, £25,850; IWC Schaffhausen Portugieser Chronograph 40.9mm 18-Karat Red Gold And Alligator, £13,950, both mrporter.com

“Getting the new generation to buy traditional watches is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry right now,” agrees Jean-Claude Biver, CEO of Tag Heuer and president of the LVMH Watch Group. “Having a strong online presence allows us to have a dialogue with the millennials operating in this space.”

Both Mr Porter, a luxury e-commerce platform currently stocking pieces from 16 watch houses, and Tag Heuer, which sells direct to consumer through its own website, were early adopters which both launched their respective online watch stores in 2013. Their success – Tag Heuer currently makes 10% of global sales via its website while Mr Porter has seen sales increase year-on-year since launch – has spurred others to follow suit. Farfetch, for example, launched its digital watch room early this year.

Operating a marketplace model, brands can retain control of their online presence while negating the need to invest in their own platforms which, explains CCO Giorgio Belloli, “means we are not limited to a seasonal buy or wholesale range. Our partners are able to load any piece from their range onto our platform while we offer up new geographies that they can’t reach with a mono-brand website.”

Connected Modular 41 titanium and ceramic, £2,400; Monaco 40.5mm, £7,600; Formula 1 37mm steel and white ceramic, £3,600, all tagheuer.com

Product range is, of course, key to an online consumer used to being spoilt for choice. While this is simpler for a brand like Tag Heuer, which offers its entire product line via the website, for platforms such as Mr Porter and Farfetch, carefully selecting the brands and pieces that will appeal to an international audience is a fine art. “We have a variety of customers, some looking for their first watch and some looking for their tenth,” explains Firth. “Our buying team know our customers very well through the data we receive on their shopping habits so, for example, we know that they want both independent and big brands and that limited editions and exclusives perform extremely well.”

Getting to know customers via a digital environment with measurable, trackable data is of great benefit to fine watch brands and one that simply can’t be replicated in a traditional retail environment. And, while data collection has becoming something of a scary term in a world of internet giants such as Facebook and Google, in the more intimate sphere of fine watchmaking it can actually be of benefit to the consumer. For example, if Biver knows his customer is likely to be a young man interested in the brand’s Connected Modular 41 smartwatch it may help him make decisions about which products to develop for future releases. It has also, he says, encouraged the brand to focus more on the largely under-valued women’s sector.

Bell & Ross BR V2-92 Aeronavale 41mm, £2,300; Chronomaster El Primero Full Open 42mm, £8,700; both farfetch.com

Business models aside, all three agree that price is no longer a barrier to buying online. Farfetch’s most expensive timepiece – Ulysse Nardin’s Freak Out 45mm - currently retails at £43,600 while Mr Porter has previously offered pieces in the hundreds of thousands. “We’ve ensured we have the right logistics and security in place to handle higher-priced transactions and deliveries,” says Belloli. “We also build trust every time we can answer a question about where and how a product is made or source something rare, customised or bespoke.”

For Biver, buying online with confidence is all about clear communication. “Online offers an introduction to the Tag Heuer universe - the craftsmanship, the ambassadors and the partnerships. Positive online retail experiences in the luxury sector ensure that customers feel more and more comfortable when making an important purchase, so we’ve made sure people can access the information they need to make an informed decision.”

“Sometimes a traditional boutique may put a guy off because he feels intimidated or isn’t in the mood to speak to a sales assistant so instead he seeks out an authorised online retailer with secure service,” agrees Firth. “If a customer purchases a watch they decide isn’t for them, it’s a simple and seamless process to send it back and source another.”

So, whether you’re looking for your first mechanical watch or a highly complicated piece for your extensive collection, your next purchase may be easier than you ever imagined.

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