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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Kirk Jewelers moves upmarket from downtown Miami

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Kirk Jewelers is the oldest Rolex authorized dealer in Florida, and one of only two retailers representing Patek Philippe in Miami. You do not get to work Switzerland’s most iconic watchmakers without moving with the times, and Kirk recently relocated its flagship store from Downtown Miami to the sparkly new Brickell City Centre mall where daily customer numbers increased by as much as twenty-fold.

That has not altered the family-run feel of the boutique, a quality that brother and sister co-presidents Jeff Newbauer and Allison Strongin believe gives them an significant edge over much larger competitors.

On a visit to the new store in March, just before Coronavirus locked down the city, WatchPro’s Daniel Malins discovered a team looking through to the other side of the pandemic and optimistic they were setting the stage for a new era for the business.

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EDITOR’S NOTE:

WatchPro visited Kirk Jewelers new store before the lock down in March, a time when the virus was already spreading across Asia and Europe but few were foreseeing the scale of the crisis to come in the United States. Florida has been comparatively successful at tackling the spread of the disease and Kirk Jewelers was allowed to reopen in May.

In an update from co-president Jeff Newbauer at the end of May he describes: “Coronavirus brought business to a screeching halt. Considering we typically strive to offer a unique in-store experience, the store being abruptly closed, made for a very difficult time.

Nevertheless we stayed productive by keeping in touch with many of our clients and have continued to do business on watches and jewelry we fortunately had in stock. Although sales are way down for this period, the demand for our brands seems to have held strong.

“I’m looking at this as just a temporary pause in our 73 year history and am confident that things will bounce back over the next few months and year,” Mr Newbauer continues. “We had our grand opening January 1st 2020 and are had our re-opening on Friday, May 22nd.

Looking forward to getting back, mask and sanitizer ready!”

WatchPro: Why did you relocate your store from Downtown Miami to the Brickell City Centre mall at the beginning of this year?

Jeff Newbauer: Brickell City Center was built almost 4 years ago and we had it in the back of our minds because they were putting a lot of money into it. The infrastructure is already done surrounding the mall, so there really wasn’t any question as to whether clients would be here; all our clients either already worked or lived here.

Allison Strongin: It’s actually closer to a lot of our clients. They were coming from this side of the river over to us. I feel that we’re even more convenient to a lot of them now. So we’re able to stay within our territory, which is important when dealing with the brands that we represent. So we’re able to move yet still service our existing clients.

Brickell City Center.

Jeff Newbauer: We were able to retain our client base. We knew that by being in this location the exposure would elevate the store, whereas being Downtown was a struggle. We had wonderful products and the reputation, but the problem was for new clients to really seek us out was a challenge.

Without being in a prime location it’s really impossible to do that.

At the old store we’d see maybe 15-20 visits a day from clients – it was a “destination location”. Here the foot traffic increased beyond our expectations.

We’ve just been here since January, the Kirk brand awareness has shot up!

WatchPro: Rolex and Patek Philippe are clearly your anchor brands. How competitive is Miami for these brands?

Allison Strongin: In total there are four Rolex dealers in Miami and two Patek dealers. We’re still fortunate that after all these years — it’s been over 60 years with both brands — we’ve been lucky that this is what we represent, we’re really focused on the two brands. We’ve carried a lot of other brands, but we’ve zoned in. It’s what we do, Rolex and Patek. We’re the oldest Rolex dealer in Florida.

Jeff Newbauer: We’re probably one of the three or four oldest Rolex dealers in the country, since 1958. Patek’s been working with us since the 60s. To have both together in a new location is pretty special.

WatchPro: To what extent will Bucherer and Watches of Switzerland be a worry or drive you on to do better things with Rolex and Patek Philippe?

Jeff Newbauer: As an independent, we have a lot of advantages: Between our marketing campaigns, our social media, the fact that Allison and I are here all the time – this is the difference that our customers feel: The personal touch of an independent, family-run business. Transforming customers into friends for more than 70 years.

In addition both Bucherer and Watches Of Switzerland will invest a lot of money in building out and modernizing the stores. From that perspective we don’t have to fear anything. On the contrary, overall it helps to invigorate the Rolex and Patek Philippe brands. It’s better and more exciting for everybody.

Allison Strongin: As much as we know that our customers like us and appreciate us, I think we were gratefully overwhelmed when we moved, the first few days and first week we were open. You move and you think they’re going to come, but I didn’t expect them to come the day we moved because they were so excited that we were finally open.

We’ve been debating doing a grand opening, but I think we did it without trying. They all came. I don’t think we understood how connected our customers feel to this store, and that put it into perspective for us.

WatchPro: Rolex and Patek Philippe are masters at making scarcity into an essential component of their luxury image. But there is a growing backlash because anybody new or comparatively new to luxury watches doesn’t stand a chance of getting hold of their most popular models. How does that tension help or hinder you at Kirk?

Jeff Newbauer: The biggest thing that people appreciate is transparency in the process. You have to be straightforward with them and manage expectations from the beginning. A lot of stores will go off in the wrong direction and tell customers, “Yeah, give us some time and we’ll make this happen”, and never deliver the timepiece.

Considering we don’t have control over the allocations, I would rather talk down the availability of a product or the likelihood of us being able to provide it and then hopefully one day be able to surprise the customer with the watch.

One of the ways we’re able to manage it is to make sure that every piece sold here is to somebody who appreciates it. So it ends up in the hands of the end user, it’s our clients that is happy because they have the watch in their hand, they are wearing it and enjoying it and they’re not forced to have to buy it on the second hand market for twice as much.

I hear a lot of times people say “That watch doesn’t perform well.” The reality is that five or six years ago, if a watch would depreciate 10-15% over a longer period, that was considered a really good buy. I think a big problem now is that people’s expectation is that if the watch is not immediately worth 50% over the retail value they don’t think it’s worth investing in. That’s a little scary. But that’s the challenge, getting people to understand there’s more to Patek than Nautilus for instance.

It’s a long-term investor or collector versus somebody who is all about today and the moment. That’s tricky but we definitely have a lot of clients who are broader thinking — they like the sports models and those pieces because they like them. And with Rolex, the demand is super high. We get a nice selection of watches in, it’s not that it’s so short, it’s just right now the demand is so high. I think that if stores did a better job at managing clients, clients would have less of this hunting mentality where everyone is out looking.

WatchPro: How much pressure do you get from Rolex and Patek Philippe to make sure that the watches get sold to the right people? They claim they take the matter seriously. Is that a reality?

Jeff Newbauer: They’re very concerned about how the brands are being represented. And in terms of the actual flipping and that kind of thing, it’s a huge issue. They want to make sure the watches are with the end consumers. When we go on Chrono24 and see hundreds of these pieces sitting there, it’s obviously a problem. I think I can speak for the US market, and these companies are definitely taking it very seriously.

WatchPro: Do you get involved in the pre-owned market in any way?

Jeff Newbauer: We’re doing more and more.

Not necessarily everyone is going to have a watch for the rest of their lives and we understand this is not the same as flipping. With Patek, as an example, we won’t buy back a piece unless it’s at least three years old. At that three year point the watch is truly a used piece, the owner didn’t flip it — they’ve owned it. The watch then can be re-sold at market value. We do two years with Rolex. We also try to buy with the original box and warranty, so it’s a nice package when we resell it.

In addition, we are in the process of opening a Rolex service center which will help facilitate refurbishing our pre-owned pieces in-house. — we’re actually looking for a good watchmaker and Rolex is helping us with this.

WatchPro: What changes have you noticed in the time that Kirk Jewelers has been operating? Have tastes and trends changed? Has the attitude of the big brands changed over the years?

Jeff Newbauer: I think the big one was the luxury experience. The shopping environment that we were offering mattered all of a sudden. We had a beautiful jewelry store but it was not enough. The idea of a shop-in-shop didn’t exist.

What do they do at a 5 star resort? What do they do at the Ritz Carlton? What do they do at these nice hotels? And that was my idea of what our luxury experience is all about, and that just evolved.

Allison Strongin: I agree that it’s that luxury experience. It’s all about the customer service aspect, the wining and dining and sitting down in a room like this and having coffee. That full service experience was very rare. It happened in other countries more than the US market but that is what has changed the most in the last few years.

Jeff Newbauer: The other thing that’s changed quite a bit is we have a lot more, mostly male, consumers who are collectors. They look at their watch collections now like people in the past looked at their art collections. It’s changed, there are so many collectors now.

Allison Strongin: They strategize about the product too. I have customers who turn down a steel Daytona. They’ll say: “I own an Omega Moon Watch, that’s my chrono, I need something different.” You can get into these deep conversations about a particular piece. To me that’s new and really interesting when I can get to that level with them. If we can find clients that are that passionate about the collection and then offer them an allocated piece to fit that hole they’re looking for, I think it’s great.

WatchPro: To what extent is this knowledge and obsession because of the internet?

Jeff Newbauer: It’s good and bad. It’s great for Rolex and Patek and AP, and a few others, but it also feeds the focus on certain watches. Which goes back to what I was saying before.
Allison Strongin: Their knowledge is unbelievable. The access to information online, so you have customers who in a sense know the market just as a well, if not better, because it’s a hobby and an obsession.

WatchPro: As a store that’s trying to replicate the experience of a five star hotel, how hard is it to embrace modern technology, like Instagram and social media?

Allison Strongin: We have a dedicated person to do social media for us. The key aspect is to get the hospitality, the warmness of the store and what the owners think is the right strategy onto social media.

WatchPro: How tempted are you to expand, either in the form of taking extra space for this store, or opening another Miami store?

Allison Strongin: We’re really focused on this store at the moment.

Jeff Newbauer: We want this to be working really well before we think about the next step. In terms of expansion in this location, the negotiation that we did took almost two years, to gain this much space and create the footprint that we have. So I think Brickell City Centre is probably ideal for us.

WatchPro: Hypothetically, if there was to be another expansion and a new opening, would it be in Miami?

Jeff Newbauer: That’s a hard question. I think that there is something to be said for a market that you really know well. We have to really study a market and it would have to be a unique opportunity. I mean obviously not just for us to want to do but also for our brands, that move would have to be a unique location that’s lacking representation. There are a lot of markets that are underserved, so it’s just finding the right place.

WatchPro: I imagine that these brands ask a lot of you but that it’s well worth it?

Allison Strongin: It’s amazing how much support we’re getting from Rolex and Patek when it comes to marketing and communications. They’re doing a lot more research at their end now, and sharing it with us, the retailers, to say “Use this, do this, this is going to help you.”

We never had advice in that way before, so I think that’s very useful. Looking at the results, we’re very happy.

WatchPro: On the subject of Patek and Rolex, with the cancellation of Baselworld we have not seen any new watches this year from either brand. How does that affect you?

Jeff Newbauer: We’ll miss Baselworld. I love to get my hands on product, so I think that that’s a disappointment. I don’t know what the end result will be. It will be a little disappointing because we enjoy sitting in that room, being able to take pictures of the watches and get a feel for them before we come home and tell our customers..

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Rob Corder

The author Rob Corder