After winding through lake-side roads, hurtling through mile-long tunnels and surviving the heat of the Swiss-Italian border in summer, the manufactory of Roamer, a Swiss watch brand founded back in the late 1880s, comes into view nestled quietly on the edge of the Roman town of Mendrisio.
The building, a sleek glass structure, is a recent move for the company and one that marks its commitment to restore the brand to the former glories that it enjoyed in Europe several decades ago. Three years ago Roamer Switzerland began a relaunch program for its brand, which is distributed in the UK by Inter City Group (ICG), distributor of fashion-led brands such as Police, Tendence and Swiss Military.
At the helm of Roamer’s renaissance is Leonhard Schweiger, who took over took over the responsibility of Roamer’s international repositioning in 2009. He has worked with watch brands since 2005 and saw Roamer as an exciting challenge.
“The brand had got a little tired,” explains Schweiger “A few years ago the range was not Roamer any more, there was no DNA. The brand had simply created something for every possible watch customer, but was very much focused on men.”
Stepping back to focus on where the brand should be positioned, Schweiger, alongside Roamer head of product development Ralph Furter, worked to update and align the collections for today’s market. According to Schweiger, listening and trying to understand customers’ and partners’ needs has been key to Roamer during this time.
As a result the new Roamer collections are much more concise and include women’s ceramics and colourful silicone-strapped sports models, with price points upwards of CHF200 (£130) to CHF800 (£520).
At present about 60% of Roamer’s watch sales are men’s timepieces, although Schweiger says this is in a state of flux as women’s sales are steadily increasing.
The re-entry, as such, of Roamer to the UK market is a move made hand-in-hand with ICG, a company that Schweiger says was his first choice for a UK partnership.
“When we were deciding who we wanted to work with we knew ICG had a great network of retailers that they already worked with,” he explains.
Roamer’s second push in the UK comes at a time when the mid-market is at its most saturated but is also battling against a swathe of cheaper, fashion-led watches and those with higher price points that customers might have saved up for – especially those better-known brand names. So how does Roamer hope to fit in, in the UK? Schweiger acknowledges that Roamer and IGC have their work cut out.
“The field of competition for Roamer is huge in the UK but we’re not here to attack other brands,” he says. “We want to be an alternative to the other Swiss brands, while offering Swiss-made watches, better margins, more flexibility with ordering.”
At present the brand is sold through about 80 independent retailers in the UK, and is hoping to reach about 100 doors by the end of year, with the aim of settling at about 150 independent UK stockists over the next few years.
Roamer has already scored a high-profile retail partner through ICG – Ernest Jones. It has been sold exclusively through Ernest Jones for the past few years, a deal that has led to Roamer gaining sales space in 54 Ernest Jones stores.
“Roamer has had to prove that our watches and sales are stronger than those [brands] that have been taken out [of Ernest Jones to make way for Roamer],” explains Schweiger. “This has meant getting in front of the retailers, and through ICG we have access to 2,500 UK retailers across a broad portfolio.”
To build its foundations, through ICG, Roamer is now showcased at Houlden group meetings and is a Houlden supplier, something Schweiger dubs an “automatic introduction” to key retailers.
For conversations such as those held with Houlden Group members, the brand’s history in the UK is a trump card. While it might have fallen by the wayside in recent years, Roamer’s past heyday as watch brand that jewellers enjoyed selling means that ICG can approach former stockists who will remember the brand and its past successes, many of whom will still be aligned with its 2012 offer.
“People remember the brand for its positives,” says Schweiger.
“Though there were some wrong decisions made about the designs and pricings by the previous management it was never an issue of quality. Today retailers see Roamer and they recall a good past selling the brand.”
While most brands looking to re-enter a market might throw cash at marketing and consumer advertising, Roamer has had to be a little more creative and Schweiger says the brand’s history has also been enough of a pull for today’s consumer, or those who remember it from the past.
“We recently sponsored a golfing event and the number of people who came up to ask if this was the Roamer watch brand, who were really pleased to see us back, was impressive,” he recalls.
In its past, Roamer boasted its own in-house movement called the MST and its manufactory was able to produce around 1.2 million movements a year, selling many to other brands until production came to an end in 1978. An in-house movement, however, is something that Roamer has been working on once again, not only in reaction to the curtailment of Swatch Group’s ETA movements, but also to revive its history.
“We’ve just got the first samples back [of the new in-house movement] from the FHS,” says Schweiger.“And we hope to start using them in 2013.”
As testament to the brand’s revival, only two and a half years ago Roamer had nine members of staff. Today a 1,000-strong team works on Roamer, as well as parent company Swiss Watch Group’s other brands, in the Mendrisio manufactory, producing up to 4,000 watches in a day.
So what is next for the rebuilding of Roamer? At present the brand has more than 1,000 retail points of sale globally, with China its largest market.
Interestingly China remained the brand’s strongest market throughout its quieter years in Europe, and today sales in China account for 62% of Roamer’s global sales.
Its re-entry is not just a UK-focused project, however, with the initiative also reaching Mexico – one of its newest locations – where Roamer has resigned with the same distributor that it worked with in the country back in 1972.
The Ukraine and Hungary are also new for the brand, with the Roamer opening 17 points of sales in just three months in Hungary. The list goes on: Germany, Japan, Australia – its second biggest market after China, achieved in just 18 months – Austria and Russia, where the brand has enjoyed 33% growth so far in 2012.
Roamer’s aim, says Schweiger, is to sell 100,000 watches a year by 2015. And with all routes to success looking promising for the brand so far, then this global project may just prove to be a winning move for Swiss Watch Group and ICG.