Watches In Today’s Retail Market

This topic is really important. And discussing it is going to piss off a lot of people, but I need to get it off my chest. Funny enough, due to a mix-up on our end, this article was published before it was finished, retracted, and then eventually completed. Cries of censorship filled our inbox! Consider this a follow-up to a previous article I penned that discussed Why Watches Are So Expensive. OK, this isn’t exactly news to many people, but watches are really expensive. And to be honest with you, they are usually too expensive. Way too expensive – and whether that is good or bad is another topic. This (longish) article is about value, and what the hell happened to it. It actually isn’t just about the watch industry and I am not really trying to advocate for change, but rather using the luxury industry perspective to discuss a particular set of observations.

The previous article I linked to above discusses all of the reasons watches as luxury goods are expensive (in a diplomatic way) and offers a lot of good and useful information in understanding the watch industry and why items are simply going to cost a lot of money to begin with. At the same time there is a more devious side to the equation that rides on the back of the necessary evil of making a fine instrument. And that devious little character is “the ego.” A detail not separable from the world of luxury and the emotions which create desire for it.

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Egos can make people overconfident. So confident that they are willing to charge a lot more for something than it might be worth, or that an educated consumer might be willing to spend given the competition. Let’s talk about  our current economic state and general economics for a moment. You know how there is that big “retail meltdown” all over the US (and the world) that has been going on for a number of years? Not just with watches but with almost everything. Stores we once saw as social fixtures are going away and surviving retailers only talk about finicky consumers. Many brick and mortar watch retailers are or have closed their doors because people simply aren’t buying from them anymore. What is going on? Well, we are finicky. Consumers (and I mean all consumers) want a simple thing. To pay the best price possible for the most useful (in this case a highly relative term) things. It isn’t a complex formula, but it seems to piss off a lot of people. Go into a high-end watch store and hear them snobbishly poof about how “we do not discount at this establishment.” Oh yeah? Well the Internet does, and people who sell you inventory also seem to allow for tons of their stuff to be available online. Don’t get upset with me because I simply want the best deal out there.” The natural response to this over the last few years has been for brands to remove or highly limit the availability of goods to third-party retailers. If products are sold online, they are sold direct from the brand at 100% retail price. They finally figured out that a lower-cost option  for buying the same thing always wins.

Why The Best Price Wins

Wanting the best deal out there is just simple psychology. People that don’t price-hunt are bad business people and are fiscally irresponsible. The ability to price-shop with the speed that the Internet allows is incredible. What did we have before that? Calling around? Driving around to other stores close by? Before the Internet, simple logistical impediments made price comparison shopping a pain. It’s not like you are going to fly to South America to see if you can get that new flat screen television cheaper over there. And because retailers more or less have the same fixed costs, the consumer could more or less expect the same prices all around town – save for an occasional special sale.

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The Internet changed all that. Prices all over the world could be compared, assuming someone was willing to ship something. People with used or unwanted items had an immediate connection to interested consumers, and shops without bloated overheads (think rent on those high-end streets and in upscale malls) could conduct business for pennies on the dollar. The ability for Internet merchants to have lower prices combined with the ability consumers had to price compare in milliseconds killed retail as we know it. We will never look back without complaint. For more on that, you can study the ways Best Buy is trying to stay alive today and the reasons for the once super-power chain’s sharp decline.

Does The Retail Model Hold Up?

It is true, I am convinced that the Internet killed the retail model that we have had and known for a long time. Going back to the watch industry, the historical “arguments” against buying online are simply too weak. Here are the three best arguments. First, “people want to try things on before they buy them.” Maybe, but either they will go to a store to try it out and then buy online, or simply do their research and rely on reviews of people they trust.

Second, buying in stores from authorized dealers gives you a valid warranty and “the luxury buying experience.” If the luxury buying experience is anything like the luxury dining experiences – I am going to pay too much and still feel hungry afterward. Oh, that and a human being is there to lay a napkin on my lap. That isn’t worth extra $$$ to me. Neither is a warranty half the time. This is another complicated topic in the watch industry – whether the warranty is worth it. Have you ever had to send your watch in to get it serviced under warranty? First, a good watch shouldn’t have issues in the 1-3 year warranty period. So if and when it needs work, the warranty won’t mean anything. Second, watch brands charge a mint to fix watches – even under warranty a lot of the time because they find reasons why repairs aren’t covered. Watch service is big business I learned. Huge actually and the industry that provides it is just now really forming. So while I do like to do things the “official” way, the traditional AD (authorized dealer) argument just doesn’t hold up. Don’t get me wrong. I like ADs. They are my friends. I want them to succeed. But the tools they have available to them are often pitiful, but less and less so as the people in charge brighten up. The industry needs to change in order to give them a value proposition that savvy consumers will actually find appealing.

The third major argument to buy from an AD is also complex. Brands and dealers often warn that only by purchasing from them are you guaranteed to receive a genuine watch, or one that is truly new. This is technically true, but the situation runs deeper than that. Let’s start with the “real watch” side of the argument. While it has happened before, the chances of you buying a fake watch from a reputable dealer (authorized or not) is incredibly slim. If by reputable dealer you mean a kiosk on the street selling watches for $100, then you might be in for a little surprise when you get home. Otherwise, I wouldn’t worry too much about buying fakes in stores at prices that don’t seem too good to be true.

However, watches from alternate retail channels might be pre-owned, or just thrown around a bit. They might also be what other industries call “refurbished,” or watches that have been repaired after not coming out of the factory in proper working order. Ultra deep discounts on new watches can sometimes carry with them little strings. It is good to read the small print, ask the necessary questions, and make sure return policies are reasonable. That means watches might come with small technical errors, cosmetic issues, etc… Sometimes this is not even known to the dealers. You have to understand that the longer a watch is unsold and the more hands it moves through, the more likely it will receive “unloving treatment.” As I’ve mentioned in the past, retailers handle watches like commodities. In the US for instance, they are required to put all watches from a store front into a safe at night for insurance purposes. That means the watches are packed up and moved around each and every day.

So that ultra-good deal you are getting online might be for something that is technically new, but doesn’t look it. The dealer selling it bought it for pennies on the dollar and is probably happy to sell it for a 60% off or lower discount. The complex system of dealers, distributors, subsidiaries, etc… will vastly increase the prices of these low-volume items. A brand that sells 50,000 mechanical watches a year is doing pretty well. But that is nothing compared to a million or more units a year. That means that each watch must be marked up high-enough to make a profit, unlike smaller margins on units which sell at much higher volumes. The end result is that the price to value equation to the consumer is relatively low given all the pieces that take a cut.

The Strategy Of Modern Watch Marketing

Brands today are getting smarter about using the Internet and are cutting out many of the middlemen who are increasingly redundant. This means selling direct to consumers and removing a lot of the salespeople who went around to dealers selling new product. That also means prices should go down offering more value to the consumer, but that frequently isn’t the case. Prices are going up and many brands are lucky enough to profit more from each sale. Why is this happening? What happened to value?

Well my friends, the reality is that we are not dealing in necessary consumables and life sustaining items. We are dealing with luxury products, which by definition are reserved for the few. And even though a lot of advertising from brands suggests otherwise, these are not meant to be items for the everyday man. As long as people are buying watches then the natural laws of luxury economics dictates that prices will go up. So why do we get so angry then when that new watch we love costs $10,000 or more and we are just a simple person with good taste? We aren’t all Prada-clinging, Vuitton-lusting materialists. Not at all. It is because high-end mechanical watches strike a special nerve in many men (as well as women) that make us appreciate and desire them. Attention to detail, high-quality materials, precision-engineering, and a peek into an alternate, more exciting lifestyle that we will probably never have. This isn’t exactly the typical profile of a luxury good, and it makes watches feel very different.

It doesn’t help that most of the watches we want today were more reasonably priced in past lifetimes. As timepieces have moved away from being tools to lifestyle items, their prices and demographics changed, but their core messages did not. Rolex, Omega, TAG Heuer, and many others existed for many years as mere makers of “good” watches. Sometimes expensive, sometimes fabulous, and sometimes ironic in their design, they never dreamed of making sport watches that would only be taken underwater, flown with, or taken on safari in advertisements. Today’s luxury status of timepieces simply does not mix well psychologically with the core concept of what many consumers expect and demand. While it makes sense for a diamond-covered watch to cost a mint, why does something meant to be taken underwater and survive need to cost as much as a teenager’s first car? It is just hard for many people who understand the deeper nuances of timepiece luxury economics to accept.

Shallow Pockets, Loud Voices

As I have learned, the scientific mind is frequently drawn to the allure of good watches. Though we are but a fringe of the buying demographic, we do represent an incredibly essential role these days. As we do not represent the majority of the people with the spending power to keep the watch industry alive, we will remain second-class buyers, but we are first class opinion-generators.

The role of watch media is incomplete without the role of enthusiast feedback. Whether you know it or not, the opinions generated online and the feedback of consumers is measured by the power of their words versus the power of their wallets. Knowledgeable people who discuss watches online influence not only the lay consumer, but also mainstream media as well as retailers who decide what to buy. Also, of course, the watch brands who remain silent but meticulously survey each and every word written about them on the Internet. The role of the finicky watch enthusiast (a nod to all us WIS types out there) helps shape the larger opinion and direction watch developments take. That guy looking at reviews online will notice your comments, the woman making one last check to ensure a model is legit before buying it as a gift will appreciate your thoughts. You will help entice or derail many a purchase. What role will you have in value?

Value Versus Price

There are watches I can afford and watches I will never be able to consider purchasing. For the latter I discuss them as art, as items of quality in-line with their price. I attempt to measure $100,000 plus watches against other $100,000 plus watches, and likewise for all price segments. Though I am not the consumer of many timepieces I discuss, I treat them as if I was a potential buyer with the budget necessary to purchase them. I have accepted that many watches, like art in a museum, were never destined for my ownership. The value there is in exclusivity, creativity, and quality. They are only as over-priced as any art is.

I look at value as a function of what you get for the money – not about sheer price. It is up to each individual consumer to determine whether a watch presents them with value. I suggest this to all consumers and all brands when it comes to a particular product. Does the watch offer features and quality relative or greater to other watches of that price? If not, then you have a value problem. Too often brands will try to play with this concept by adding budget to marketing campaigns or conceiving confusing messages about the product. If that formula sells the watch then great, but that doesn’t mean you have a high-value product.

Consumers should feel comfortable with each purchase. Each alone will determine what they can afford, but it saddens me when the principle complaint watches get – even by the extremely educated – is that a timepiece’s price is too high. I just don’t want to see that ubiquitous remark as often. Value is about what you get for the money and I’d like to see people getting a lot of watch for their dollar as often as possible. I didn’t write this to admonish or warn, but rather to espouse conversation and meaningful discussion on what we are buying and why.

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