A few weeks ago, Dubai Watch Week and Christie’s hosted the Horology Forum 2018 in London. This is an event for watch industry professionals, watch media but definitely also for enthusiasts and collectors to share knowledge and operate as a discussion platform on several topics (from British Watchmaking to Independent Watchmaking, Gérald Genta and George Daniel’s legacies to the role of influencers on watch consumers). One of the panel discussions was titled ‘Cultural Clout – The iBuyer Cult’, and just like any topic that has to do with digital media or e-commerce, quickly went all over the place. From the fear of bad online reviews to the role of influencers, selling watches online (which then quickly results in a discussion about the grey market) and the future of brick and mortar retailers. It is very easy to lose yourself in touching all of these subjects when talking about the internet and the watch industry. Everyone seems to have an opinion on these things, even those who actually never tried to buy a watch online (or never bought one in a brick and mortar shop) and those who still get certain definitions wrong on grey market (which is definitely not the same as fake watches. Sigh).
The panel discussion by moderator Barbara Palumbo (here’s her website) was – for me – one of the most interesting topics during the Horology Forum 2018 event in London. Even for me, it is difficult to try not to touch everything that has to do with being online or digital in general, but one thing I found interesting is the shift that is going on where watch retailers become media and media become watch retailers. The discussion whether traditional brick and mortar shops should sell online is not relevant for this discussion, and that discussion has been ongoing since (at least) 2000 when our contributor Gerard already talked about this during Baselworld (when they still did these speaker events). In my opinion, I can only see that brands and retailers stand a chance to survive in the long run, when they also start to sell online. At least for the generation that will be tomorrow’s consumer of luxury watches, like my daughter. Even she (5 years old) knows that you can do groceries online, order (her) clothes and toys online. The first thing she asks when the doorbell goes is “What has been delivered dad/mom?”. Her generation is already used to this. And yes, this will also apply for luxury products, I am very confident. Boutiques will never disappear for sure, as you do need a physical location to have your strap changed, hand-over your watch for service or repair etc. but not necessarily needed to do sales. That said because we are still talking valuable luxury goods here, a consumer probably wants to have a touch & feel session in order to make his or her final decision. But does that need to be at the retailer as we know them today? Or can there be only a few brand showrooms/boutiques in the future? What about augmented reality or even a trial period (I think Linde Werdelin was actually one of the first brands to do this, where you could order a watch for a trial period of 5 days to give it a go). In a nearer future, I can also see boutiques having a core collection to try, and the ordering happens on the spot and you can decide whether you pick it up or have it delivered to your door. Whatever is more convenient for the consumer, that’s true luxury.
But, as you can read, I am already drifting away from the purpose of this article. This article is about watch retailers that start to get (or take) a different role in the watch industry (and buying process) and media that adds an additional service besides providing (useful) information, namely that of directly selling you a watch (online). To start with the latter, watch media selling watches.
Hodinkee was mentioned when the discussion started in London, being media that ‘suddenly’ started to operate as an authorized dealer. Sure, titles have been selling straps and other types of accessories, perhaps even the pre-owned or vintage watches once in a while, but an online watch magazine becoming an online authorized dealer was something new. You also have to understand that this was received upon with despise from, especially, other watch media. But that might just be jealousy or fear (for what?). The biggest pain here was (and is) with existing brick and mortar retailers. How can they compete with a title that has 2.29million visits (based on Similarweb) where a large retailer like Tourneau has, let’s say, 325.000 online visits (based on the same source). And that is a large retailer, not even the website of your local Baume & Mercier, Longines, Grand Seiko, NOMOS, Vacheron Constantin authorized dealer.
I can’t understand the continuous complaining by other watch media, other than the question of whether this influences the journalistic independence of a title. Does it? I think you can name the titles that provide you with (hands-on) reviews where you will find an actual opinion rather than a summary of specifications without too much effort. Selecting those that do not write that everything is always fine, lovely, amazing and the “best we’ve ever seen” and there will be only a few left. The “don’t shit where you eat” expression comes to mind, but when the writing is a well underpinned opinionated piece, it is not very likely that brands will turn away from you. It is also the ‘journalistic’ obligation we have, in all honesty. Hodinkee, just like Fratello, indicates that an editorial piece is what it is, editorial, so no paid content from brands. Brands can use an advertorial or banner to send their own message across, as they always did in print magazines.
But anyway, I have to admit that I also had my doubts about media becoming a retailer. I also came to the conclusion that both the brand and the consumers do not share the concerns that journalists seem to have. People like to buy watches at Hodinkee because they stand for cool watches and are like-minded enthusiasts. Brands love it, as they now have an additional channel with a crazy reach in a huge market (USA) where they otherwise would have difficulties being properly represented (NOMOS for example).
The only real and valid complains here might come from the (traditional) brick and mortar stores, or even retailers that do have an online presence. They suddenly have extra competition from companies that have a huge audience that is interested in watches. In the past, dealers tried to work with media using an affiliate program, but that hardly worked. If you would know how many emails we receive from people that bought a watch because they read a review about it on our website, you could easily draw the conclusion that we better start selling watches. And that’s exactly what some media like Hodinkee did, and it works for them. There are other titles as well that started selling watches, but you’ll get the picture.
Is it an unfair competition? Well, if media is able to do the cherry picking of watch models where traditional authorized dealers are required to buy an entire collection (including those watches they don’t want or know they can’t sell), it is indeed not entirely fair if this is not compensated one way or the other. Overstocking authorized dealers is never a good idea, of course. Why would a brand force a retailer to buy watches that they know they will not sell to their clients? Who knows their clients best? Right. So the grey market problem is something that either starts here or directly at the manufacture and is not an issue caused by consumers (which some brands and retailers want to make you believe because you search online for the best price).
Whether selling watches via media channels is as successful as via traditional retailers remains to be the question. In my opinion, it is still too early to tell, but it is definitely an interesting possibility for both brands and consumers to do business with. Especially when the media partner is an authority on watches and a reliable partner for all involved.
It was the same panel moderator who said: “We see people from watch dealers now with press badges at the SIHH”. I’ve noticed the same thing, like many of you who visit the Geneva exhibition or perhaps walk around during the BaselWorld show. It is often the only way to get to see the watches up close, and able to take photographs and video. This also goes for dealers with press badges who are not officially dealers of the brands they visit (and want to cover on their media platform), it is often their only chance.
Is this a bad thing though? A number of watch retailers always had their in-house magazine where they showcased the brands they carry or put certain (industry) people in the spotlight. If I look at the magazine they produce today, and those they did in the early 2000s, they made just as huge steps as the traditional (print) media. Good looking magazines with content from people that have earned their miles in watch journalism. But even if they have content created by young people, just out of college, who just happen to be passionate about watches and know their stuff, why not? They might not know all the ins and outs of the watch industry (which is often a topic that only interests those who are really part of the industry), but they might even know their watches better than some journalists.
The question is whether the retailer has the means and the long breath (it takes) to create a media title or platform, besides their business of selling watches. And, perhaps, how independent the content is of these platforms. If an authorized dealer of IWC or Breitling, for example, starts to put a bit too much criticism into their articles, how do they deal with the pressure they will get from the sales manager from these brands? How objective will the reviews be of brands that this retailer will not carry (or wants to carry)? Will there be a new Hodinkee that is part of Wempe or Bucherer? As I recently discussed this with someone of the Hodinkee team, the fact that Hodinkee is very successful now, or that Speedy Tuesday was a big exposure boost for Fratello is sometimes treated as “These guys are new and have all the luck.”. Well, it isn’t, Fratello has been here for 14 years and Hodinkee for 10 years. It is not something we’ve created overnight (what some people still like to believe). The same goes for retailers, many of the retailers out there went from generation to generation and was hard work, and as long as media who wants to become a retailer keeps this in mind, that it isn’t easy by any means, there can be mutual respect.
That said, it is very clear that business today isn’t easy for the traditional brick and mortar stores. Nor is it easy to be a publisher of watch content. The revenue stream of advertisements is important, but not all brands are very willing (but love the free coverage of course!) to spend on advertising. These days, you also have to organize events, sell accessories, or even watches, to make a decent income with a magazine. The future of the retailers though is where it hurts most perhaps. Brands decide to sell more directly (and online) and are revoking dealerships. It makes me wonder what will the landscape of retailers look like in 5 years from now for example? Only with the right selection of brands, a mixture of big brands and perhaps smaller (independent) brands, might be the solution to survive in the long run. Small independent brands are more flexible when it comes to dealerships and stock, and they can use the ‘local’ exposure. Consumers are still reluctant to buy watches from independent brands that they’ve never actually seen in the flesh, and pay as much (or more) for a watch than they do for one of the mainstream brands. So I definitely see an opportunity there, for independent brands to get more local exposure and for retailers to have an extra revenue stream (and new clientele perhaps). Big brands will move more towards having the entire chain in their own hands, including the sales aspect. They do need a ‘location’ where people can try the watches and see them in the flesh, before pulling the trigger. And where to hand them over for service or repair, but this can also be done in their own boutiques or shop-in-shop locations. Will it help the retailer to become a media platform as well? Sure, it will definitely help to get more exposure and thus more customers coming in via that channel. In the long run, it will remain a gamble. I can hardly imagine a retailer becoming a media title (without selling watches) and a media title becoming only a dealer. The combination might be gold though, let’s see.
Please share your thoughts with us about media selling watches and retailers becoming media (as well), leave your comment below.
Ever since he was a young child, Robert-Jan was drawn to watches, even though it were digital Casio and quartz Swatch models at the time. In the mid-1990s, his interest increased when he started to read about mechanical watches in... read more