It could have been worse. Watch sales plummeted by 50% in March and 78% in April as Covid-19 forced physical stores across the country to close.
The year had started well enough, with sales up in January and February up over the same months in 2019 by single digit percentages, according to retail analyst NPD.
By the middle of March, stores were closing and sales stopped. But retailers adapted quickly with ecommerce and clienteling — mainly sales associates calling their best or waiting list customers — keeping commerce alive.
Ecommerce sales rocketed for the largest groups. The Watches of Switzerland reported last week that, during lock downs, online sales were up 117.8% in May, 77.7% in June and 46.2% in July, although its digital offer is more advanced in the UK than in the USA.
Independents were hit harder than large groups, according to Reg Brack, watches and luxury industry analyst at The NPD Group, because they are more dependent on in-store sales and have limited ecommerce capabilities. Watch sales by independents were down 85% in April compared to 78% for the wider market.
Sales have rebounded strongly since stores reopened, with some retailers telling NPD that revenues have been up on last year in June and July.
Mr Brack says he is also seeing a trend towards sales of higher priced watches. “People are making more thoughtful purchases,” he tells WatchPro.
Month on month, from May to June, sales of watches priced at over $3,000 rose by 52% while the market for watches priced at under $3,000 climbed by only 25%, NPD data shows.
“There is no sign that the luxury market is slowing down and we expect this rebound to continue,” says Mr Brack. “Consumers are seeing the value in luxury, particularly when watches from many brands hold their value. They are seen as safe investments right now.”
Another interesting change is that men have been outspending women as restrictions have eased. Ordinarily, men would account for 70% of luxury watch sales, according to NPD, but in June that rose to 84%. “Women appear to be more cautious, with perhaps a temporary pivot towards smartwatches,” Mr Brack suggests.
NPD reserves data on individual watch brands for its paying subscribers, but Mr Brack did mention Rolex’s effect on restarting the market. “Rolex has been a savior for bringing people back into stores after they reopened,” he says.
Officially, Rolex authorized dealers were not permitted to deliver watches bought during lock down to customers’ homes. Instead they took orders and asked customers to come to stores to collect their watches once they reopened. Some retailers recorded sales when they secured orders, others logged them once the watches were collected, causing a spike in sales just after lock downs eased.
A number of luxury watch brands allowed their authorized dealers to sell their products online for the first time during lock down. Patek Philippe experimented with a limited selection of watches sold through a small number of partners’ websites. The pilot was shut down after only a few weeks.
Panerai, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, Roger Dubuis and Grand Seiko all allowed their dealers to trade online.
NPD singles out Grand Seiko as a brand that successfully raised its profile and sales through strong digital marketing of its 60th anniversary story.
“Grand Seiko successfully pivoted to digital during the pandemic. Currently celebrating its 60th anniversary, GS has been launching new releases consistently throughout the year, and in fact the brand has climbed within the top ten across all men’s price bands above $2,000,” Mr Brack reveals.