There’s nothing quite like getting to grips with a substantial 44mm case, the sensation of winding a metal crown, or feeling the contours of an alligator strap between your fingers, turning a watch over, bringing it closer and examining the prowess of its workings through the sapphire crystal back.
Buying watches in a bricks-and-mortar store will always have relevance and, in many cases, command a magical buying experience that is hard to reproduce online. However, there has been a seismic shift in recent years with the most avid naysayers reassessing their position on watches online, accepting that shopping habits have changed and conceding that the statistics and financial results do the talking.
Results from retail analyst GfK, which specialises in research on the UK and global watch markets, recently revealed that online watch sales values have grown at a faster rate than on the high street, allowing online to take a 16.2% share of the market in Q1 2013.
E-tail is having an undeniable impact on the watch retail landscape. Although the value of watch sales on the high street grew during the period May 2012 to April 2013, it was only by 0.6%, from £875 million to £923 million, compared to the same period the year before. Meanwhile, units decreased by 9.3%. However, on the internet, the value of sales increased by 23.5% from £73 million between May 2011 and April 2012, to £90 million in between May 2012 and April 2013. The units sold also saw a growth of 8.8% online. Consequently, internet value share was at 16.2% in Q1 2013. The number of watches sold online in 2012 was almost 1.4 million.
Speaking about the results, GfK analyst Leanne Whittaker said that overall, over the past three years, despite a general decline in the number of watch units sold both online and on the high street, the value of sales is growing because of a rise in the average sales price. “Watches that cost over £5,000 are where most of the growth in the high street is coming from,” says Whittaker. “Online, sub £100 watches record the largest number of sales.” However, Whittaker added that £250 to £500 price point watches are now taking nearly 15% of the value of online products.
Although mid-market fashion watches have had a strong online presence for a while, particularly thanks to the confident development of e-tail powerhouses such as the Watch Shop, Watch Hub, The Watch Hut, Shade Station and WatchWarehouse, watch brands at the higher end of the market are gaining traction online too. WatchWarehouse is even mooting the possibility of launching a luxury element to its online business.
Although there will no doubt continue to be a buying public that prefers to hold a watch in their hands before making a purchase, shoppers are increasingly comfortable with buying big-ticket items online and high-end brands are responding. For example, Rolex recently made its first official foray into social networking; TAG Heuer launched an online UK boutique and Maurice Lacroix launched a new mobile-compatible website.
Luxury watch brand Patek Philippe’s online presence showcases the brand with qualitative content developed to be a useful source for customers, the media and watch enthusiasts. The website has been designed to be easy to navigate and is monitored on a daily basis to ensure content is up to date.
“For any communication tool we develop, the quality-rich content is key, so for us, the same rule applies to online content and more importantly to our website Patek.com. It is, in many cases today on a worldwide basis, the first contact people will have with our brand,” says Jasmina Steele, international communication and public relations director for Patek Philippe. “On Patek.com you will find an in-depth content that includes our history, heritage and our timepieces, including new models launched in Basel every year. Watches are presented not only via images and text, but also via videos and 360º images. We also invest time in developing content-rich news because we believe that updated information presented in the right format is the key for a modern representation online and we are following this route.”
Quality content online should be supported by slick navigation and a fully-rounded website that is efficient enough to be a business in its own right. In fact, when it comes to retailer websites, those in the know say that efficiency is more likely where the website is backed by different stock supplies to those in store, in order to avoid stock shortages and disappointed customers.
However, as well as being able to operate in its own entity, a website should be an extension of what brands and businesses do so well on the high street. At Oris, the website is the perfect opportunity to appeal to the brand’s core customer. “A strong online presence is vital for mid-range and luxury brands and especially so for Oris,” says Rolf Studer vice president at Oris SA. “Our customer is a professional, working man who gathers news and information from all forms of media, both online and in hard copy. He is a customer who will want to make a considered and informed purchase. Having a website that gives a great overview of brand values, heritage and product at his fingertips means he can make a smart, informed choice before making his purchase.”
Tissot too understands the impact a targeted digital campaign can have and, during BaselWorld, launched the new tissot.ch/160 web page, honouring the brand’s 160-year anniversary. The micro-site, hosted on the main Tissot site, takes the consumer through the Tissot journey and allows them to view new collections. Tissot’s plan is to continue to improve the quality of the end-consumer’s experience online, building on the brand’s success to date. Among its various ongoing development plans, Tissot also intends to improve the shopping experience online for mobile device users.
While content is king, format also matters. Static pages can be a turn off for users who are familiar with diverse and interactive content, in the form of videos, imagery and other communication methods. Brands and retailers should be thinking about developing their business in multi-media terms, offering information and personality to keep people interested, encouraging them to comment and share posts via the growing plethora of social networking websites.
Where retailers selling watches can feel dwarfed by e-tail-only retailers or online specialists, tapping into individual brands’ activities online can be highly beneficial. Retailers should ensure they ask brands about their online activities and campaigns and use them to their own advantage, spreading the word via their own social networking presence or, where permitted, using the brand’s online assets. Nomos Glashütte’s website provides contact options for UK retailers. “Our experience shows that customers generally prefer to buy Nomos watches via our retailers, where they can try the watch on before purchase and have a personal point of contact for servicing,” says Anke Fuhrhop, head of online at Nomos Glashütte. “But the online shop has also helped us to keep online prices stable, and to present our brand in the way we want.”
Using the website to support UK retailers is something Oris’ Studer understands too. “We believe that nothing can compare to touching and feeling a watch prior to purchase but we aim to support retailers both on and off-line,” he says. “The My Oris facility on the website is a registered users only area of the site, which communicates directly to the consumer, allowing them access to curated brand news and information on their local retailers, which in turn, drives them to our retailers’ stores. We are happy to work with e-commerce sites as long as they are a multichannel retailer with both an online store and a bricks-and-mortar space where personal service from a watch professional can be found.”
Michel Herbelin launched its Web Partner Scheme in 2010 for its retail stockists. As web partners, each stockist with their own site was given a uniquely coded link to place on their Michel Herbelin or watches page. “If a consumer clicks through the link and makes a purchase, the retailer is given an affiliate commission payment that represents their complete retail margin less a small handling fee,” says Suzie Brooks, marketing director at Michel Herbelin UK. “We handle all aspects of the sale ourselves including sizing bracelets, gift wrapping and despatching. Alternatively, if a consumer goes directly to the Michel Herbelin site and purchases a watch, they are asked to nominate a retailer for after sales support. The nominated retailer is paid a commission.
“Our web partner scheme has enabled our retail partners to benefit from online sales even if they don’t have their own online presence.”
No matter how limited their current online operation, retailers are advised to have a multichannel strategy in place, which does not have to be costly, and can include using social networking to promote the activity of brands they stock. At IWC Schaffhausen, both the website and social networking have become essential communications tools. “The World Wide Web is the most pervasive of marketing and communication tools, it is live 24 x 7 x 365 and all you need to access it is a mobile phone, a tool that is today ubiquitous in our target markets,” says Goris Verburg, director of marketing and communication at IWC Schaffhausen.
He adds: “Whether a partnership, event or boutique opening, the website and social media serve as content destinations that provide our customers with an inside perspective on our activities. We adapt our communication style depending on the channel we are using. IWC.com is typically formal in its communication style, preferring bold corporate communications with well-crafted design, texts and images. In social media, we take a more personalised and informal approach and this is where the brand personality really comes through strongly. We try to engage with our customers with interactive posts and answer as many of their questions and posts as possible.”
As online parameters continue to grow and evolve, increasingly diverse marketing and sales opportunities for watch brands and retailers will come to fruition. We will be waiting with anticipation to see what the creative marketing minds behind the brands come up with next and how it will help retailers shape their ever-important multichannel strategies.
This article first appeared in the September issue of WatchPro. To read the full digital issue of the magazine, click here.