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Brick and mortar retailers dive into pre-owned watch space

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Certified pre-owned at the new Bucherer Time Machine store in New York.

It’s no secret that during the height of the pandemic, when everyone was in lock down, people invested a lot of time in online hobbies – reading up, self-educating and even buying whatever struck their fancy. This is especially true in the watch world, where would-be collectors negotiated websites virtually alongside avid collectors in the hunt for the perfect watch (or watches).

This online quest for knowledge and physical watches fueled the buying frenzy. Couple that with the fact that most watch manufactures had to shutter doors and stop production for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and the conditions were ripe for high demand and low supply — leaving many people to turn to the second-hand or pre-owned markets for their fix. This, of course, translated to soaring retail prices of pre-owned goods that once were considered the less expensive alternative to buying new.

While there are a host of online platforms available for consumers to buy pre-owned watches from, smart brick-and-mortar stores are recognizing the value of this portion of the business and making moves to increase their share of the market.

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Jared Silver.

“In a way, Covid-19 created the perfect storm for the watch industry,” says Jared Silver, President of Stephen Silver Fine Jewelers in California. “It forced brands to cut production, it forced people to spend a lot of time at home indulging online in their passions and supplies went down, demand went up. It’s amazing. So, we are increasing our pre-owned business.”

According to Silver, Stephen Silver Fine Jewelry has carried certified pre-owned (CPO) watches for several years now, but the business is on the rise, and the store is making it a point to let customers know about this business. In the past, buying or selling a pre-owned watch might have had a stigma to it — as though the customer couldn’t afford to buy new. But with today’s pre-owned watch prices so high due to demand,  that concept has gone out the proverbial window. Retailers who delve into pre-owned are suddenly noting it prominently on their websites and talking it up with existing customers.

Stephen Silver Fine Jewelry.

“Selling pre-owned came naturally to us because our customers wanted to trade in their watches in order to trade up,” says Silver, noting that customers are trading in $40,000 and $50,000 watches to buy something more expensive, such as a Greubel Forsey or MB&F.  As the store is expanding and adding more space on the second floor, Silver says pre-owned will become a larger part of the business.

“We could never compete with the big online platforms like WatchBox or the others when it comes to inventory, but we do own our own inventory, we are not just a broker, and that is a powerful factor,” says Silver, noting that the company certifies all of its pre-owned pieces. ”We have the loyalty of our customers who trust us and know that we stand behind our goods.”

In fact, customer trust may well be the key reason why brick-and-mortar stores are doing so well with their CPO businesses.

Greg Simonian.

Like Stephen Silver Fine Jewelry, Westime – also located in California – is expanding its pre-owned business and has even added an entire room dedicated to online sales of CPO watches. “Our customers come from all over the world,” says Greg Simonian, President of Westime. “Having a room set up to virtually show the watches on camera and talk with the customers as though we were sitting together in a quiet office is a key component to relationship building.”

Westime is adding a second floor to their store with a large pre-owned section so that customers can experience what’s new from the brands on the first level and then go upstairs to find a different story about that brand via the vintage pieces.

“It is about offering diversity in the pre-owned inventory, too, and giving customers genuine, certified pieces,” says Simonian, noting that his pre-owned watch business has grown tenfold from what it was before the pandemic.

Additionally, Westime is the only authorized retailer of certified pre-owned  Richard Mille watches in the Americas and does a big business selling certified pre-owned Richard Mille watches that are no longer in circulation – a concept Richard Mille actually propelled to the forefront a few years ago by selecting one retailer in a few different regions to sell CPO Richard Milles.

Pre-owned Richard Mille at Westime.

One of the other factors that brick-and-mortar stores say is helping them is the fact that customers buying six-figure retail priced watches don’t want to pour over huge inventories at many of the online platforms. They want to call and talk with someone about the watch they are searching for and discuss the feasibility.

Building relationships rather than offering click bait has paid off for so many stores. Another benefit to being in the pre-owned business is that retailers who are not authorized to sell certain brands new, can sell the pre-owned pieces.

For Watches of Switzerland, which is expanding its USA footprint, getting more firmly into the pre-owed watch business was an area where they lacked expertise. What did they do? They purchased Analog Shift, a highly credible pre-owned small-scale watch platform.

David Hurley.

“We were already working with James [the founder of Analog Shift] since he was a highly credible source. So, it made sense to acquire the business and work with him in a different capacity,” says David Hurley, CEO of Watches of Switzerland in America. “We are honest enough to admit that we don’t know what we don’t know and so we wanted to work with the best, the most credible and knowledgeable in this arena.”

According to Hurley, not only does this give them the ability to own their inventory, but it also brings a new focus to the business. Not only will some of the stores have dedicated space for pre-owned, but also Watches of Switzerland is building a loft space in New York City dedicated totally to the pre-owned and vintage watches. The store will be a by-appointment-only destination.

Analogue Shift at Watches of Switzerland in SoHo, New York.

Similarly, when Bucherer in America opened its new flagship Time Machine store on 57th Street in September, it dedicated an entire section of the store’s lower level to pre-owned, in order to capitalize on the business.

Certified pre-owned at the new Bucherer Time Machine store in New York.

The list goes on and on as more and more brick-and-mortars see the value of offering customers vintage pieces, and as the stigma of buying a pre-owned watch has fallen by the wayside. Today, it’s actually considered cool to buy pre-owned.

Oh, and if you are wondering which brands are the hottest in that world, it’s pretty much the same as in the new watches realm: Richard Mille, Audemars Piguet, Rolex, Patek Philippe and a few others.

Also, while each of the retailers we spoke to about pre-owned said the prices have gone up significantly in the pre-owned world – in many cases more than doubling what the prices were pre-pandemic — they also said customers weren’t afraid to spend big money on the right watch.

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