CORDER’S COLUMN: Never go into retail

Rob Corder, managing editor, WatchPro and managing director of Promedia. (Photo by Ausra Osipaviciute/ITP Images)

When Bart Gronefeld and his brother Tim returned to the Netherlands after a highly successful spell working for legendary movement-maker Renaud et Papi in Switzerland, they knew they wanted to continue working in the watchmaking business.

But the country has no watchmaking industry to speak of, leaving the brothers weighing up a choice between launching their own brand, starting a watch servicing company or joining the family business, a small retail jeweller run by their parents.

Advice from those parents swung them away from retail.


“My father told me that, if I could make a living working Monday to Friday, I should do it because working in retail is seven days per week, evenings and now running 24/7 ecommerce. My father thought it was getting crazy,” Bart Gronefeld tells WATCHPRO in our Big Interview for January.

The Gronefelds went on to launch a service business that took care of every Breitling watch in the Netherlands, and later their eponymous watch brand, which has become one of the hottest independents on the planet.

It seems to me that Mama and Papa Gronefeld were onto something by advising watchmakers to steer clear of retail, and the past two years have brought this into sharp relief for the biggest vertically integrated groups.

For the past decade, brands from LVMH, Swatch Group and Richemont have withdrawn from working with authorised dealers and focused on running their own boutiques in global cities like London, New York, Geneva and Hong Kong.

Only recently have brands like Breitling, Omega and TAG Heuer changed their approach towards opening monobrand boutiques in partnership with their best retailers, rather than compete with them.

The pandemic has created a crisis for brands running enormously expensive boutiques on Bond Street, Rodeo Drive or 5th Avenue where business has been severely impacted by restrictions on travel.

The response from brands to this slump in sales through their directly owned boutiques was to sit on their hands and wait it out.

Meanwhile, authorised dealers outside these tourist hot spots went immediately into survival mode, and from there they adapted to doing what they do best: serving and delighting customers.

Owners saddled up to deliver watches in person by motorbike. Covid-secure click and collect and clienteling went into overdrive, and plans were made to capitalise on any pent-up demand there was when stores re-opened.

By the summer of 2020, retailers were bouncing back and recovering some of the sales they had lost during lock down.

What were the Swiss watchmakers doing at the same time? Taking their four week summer holidays, just weeks after their factories had finally been allowed to reopen.

There are many reasons watchmakers make rubbish retailers, but it is this deep-rooted mindset that will never be overcome.

Retailers say a little prayer every morning that customers will come.

Brands assume, wrongly, if they build it customers will always come.

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