Watch brands are going digital. (No, it’s not 2010.)

It took a pandemic – with stores closed around the world and sales plummeting – but some high-end watch brands are finally entering the digital age.

From augmented reality filters that let you “try on” a watch at home to chatbots that connect customers to virtual sales assistants, the rapidly expanding use of the technology is striking for an industry whose three most sold – Audemars Piguet, Rolex and Patek Philippe – does not support e-commerce. And where online experiences are still seen as at odds with the very essence of luxury.

Yes, other industries entered the arena years ago. But the speed at which watch sellers are now migrating online — and going directly to the public — reflects a sudden, urgent need to keep pace with consumers accustomed to digital engagement, either because they’ve barely experienced a world without him, or because the coronavirus epidemic has demanded it.

“It’s crazy how fast it goes,” said Marco Gabella, co-founder of watchmaking site Watchonista. “Brands have long been afraid of digital, and now that fear is fading.”

To appreciate how literally industry CEOs have interpreted the concept of going straight, just hop on Instagram or join one of the trade’s now ubiquitous Zoom presentations.

“Three weeks ago, I had no idea what an Instagram Live was,” said Maximilian Büsser, founder and creative director of Geneva-based independent brand MB&F. In mid-May, he used the platform to present “55 Minutes”, a series of interviews with other watch executives and designers. “Now we have these formats where we’re so much closer and so much more human.”

Mr. Büsser’s first guest was Patrick Pruniaux, managing director of two luxury watch brands owned by Kering, Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux. Mr Pruniaux is a former Apple executive, who joined the tech giant in 2014 to work on the first generation of its smartwatch. He’s embraced video conferencing to stay in touch with employees and customers during the pandemic: In May, he hosted one-on-one Zoom and Microsoft Teams chats with VIP customers to pique their interest in the Freak X Blue Bucherer, a limited edition watch. that Ulysse Nardin and Swiss retailer Bucherer are releasing this month.

“I don’t see it as sales sessions,” Mr. Pruniaux said. “A lot of times we just describe the product, but the video conferencing, and the fact that we can get people on board who were there when the product originated, adds more value.”

Although sales are the ultimate goal, much of the latest technology is designed to spark curiosity that would inspire potential customers to engage with a brand online.

On May 15, for example, the Watches of Switzerland group, the Leicester, England-based owner of many multi-brand and single-brand stores in the United States and Britain, co-hosted a Zoom press conference with the Japanese watchmaker Grand Seiko to present a new timepiece, the Toge special edition.

It was planned to unveil the model in early April in a joint pop-up store in Manhattan, but the crisis forced the partners to change course.

“When we first started talking about this project over a year ago, I imagined a big party at our New York store and maybe some Japanese whiskey,” said David Hurley, executive vice president of Watches of Switzerland Group, during the Zoom event.

Instead, Grand Seiko worked with Facebook’s Spark AR Studio software to develop an augmented reality filter – what Watches of Switzerland called an industry first – that lets people project the watch onto their wrists, scale a hologram from the watch up or down, rotate it, and most importantly, snap a photo to share on social media.

“At first, I did not associate this technology with our brand, especially because our collectors always talk about the quality of our dials and our finishes,” said Brice Le Troadec, President of Grand Seiko Corp. of America. “But we tried to find creative solutions outside of what is normally done in our industry.”

IWC Schaffhausen, one of eight specialist watchmakers owned by the Swiss giant Compagnie Financière Richemont, can tell.

At the end of April, the brand used augmented reality to highlight its Portugieser 2020 collection, which debuted via the online edition of the Watches & Wonders trade show. A month later, it rolled out a Facebook chatbot pilot program, giving online customers direct access to a virtual advisor.

Also in May, IWC opened its first virtual store, a 360-degree digital reproduction of its flagship store in Singapore’s ION Orchard mall, and held two events for select customers with do-it-yourself cocktails, including a Negroni and a Sakura Martini, delivered by post.

“We’ve also provided a matching Spotify playlist to create the same vibe for everyone,” IWC chief executive Christoph Grainger-Herr wrote in an email. “Customers could walk around the virtual store, view watches and interact with each other as well as with an IWC salesperson.”

The one thing customers couldn’t do: buy watches.

For most watch brands and retailers, getting up to speed with basic digital strategies that have the potential to boost sales has become a top priority.

“Creating choice for how you shop or how you physically get the product — most of those things will be pretty sticky,” said Steve Noble, senior partner at Minneapolis-based McKinsey & Company. “Some customers will want face-to-face interaction, another group will want interaction but not physically, while others will want an entirely contactless process.”

Recognizing the new reality, a number of former e-commerce holdouts are jumping into direct-to-consumer online sales this month, including Hublot and Ulysse Nardin, which started last week, and Zenith, slated for the 30 June.

“We know that the vast majority of the watch-buying experience begins online,” Mr. Pruniaux said. “E-commerce just continues the experience, and whether people buy online from our partners or on our site, we want the experience to be good.”

Watchmakers also want the experience to be consistent – but prices can vary widely depending on where customers are located (prices vary by country) and whether they buy directly from the brand or from of a multi-brand retailer, as wholesale partners are not obligated to sell watches at full retail price.

“It’s all about discounts,” said Ali Mudara, founder of Projekt8, a luxury watch boutique in Bahrain. “Customers come to the store and they negotiate a price. Why buy online if they have it cheaper in store? »

The Swiss watch industry’s patchwork approach to pricing isn’t the only obstacle to creating a seamless omnichannel offering for potential buyers. Many of the world’s top watch retailers – including Wempe, based in Hamburg, Germany, and The Hour Glass, headquartered in Singapore – are simply not equipped to sell online.

And as suppliers to the three big brands (remember Audemars Piguet, Rolex and Patek Philippe?), they have no incentive to do so.

“We’re not going to be selling on the internet tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean we’re not looking at it,” said Francois-Henry Bennahmias, chief executive of Audemars Piguet. “We manage the scarcity, anyway. It would therefore be somewhat counterproductive to offer watches online that we cannot deliver.

If only all watch brands had such problems. With Swiss watch sales down double digits in all major markets, the prospect of unsold inventory means companies are scrambling to revamp their distribution models. While offering direct digital sales is one way to achieve this, the decision has broad implications for an industry built on relationships with wholesalers.

“The multi-brand retailer is going to be more at risk than it already is,” said Andrew Block, founder of Second Time Partners, a New Jersey-based digital agency for luxury brands. “Any brands that go direct will keep the best of the best for themselves.”

To prepare for a future in which they may find themselves in direct competition with their suppliers, many watch retailers have converted to technology, preaching the gospel of Zoom events and online chat functionality.

Oliver Smith owns a watch and jewelry boutique of the same name in Scottsdale, Arizona, and a Panerai boutique in Aspen, Colorado. Zoom.”

On May 15, Mr. Smith used the platform for an online auction of 35 used watches. “We sold all but one, maybe two, of the watches, including an A. Lange & Söhne Datograph for $42,000 and a Patek Aquanaut for $30,000,” he said.

Around the same time, Mr. Smith added a chat feature to his website and appointed a salesperson to answer questions online. “We sold $65,000 worth of watches in the first week, which we never would have sold before,” he said.

Greg Simonian, president of luxury watch retailer Westime in Los Angeles, enlisted his wife, Nicole Simonian, to help him and Breitling USA president Thierry Prissert present the Swiss brand’s latest collection to a thirty customers during a Zoom happy hour.

To make the May 7 event more festive, Mr Simonian, apparently following the same playbook as IWC, arranged for cocktail-making kits from a local distiller to be delivered to attendees. Then, via Zoom, “we had a mixologist show them how to do the perfect Old-Fashioned,” Simonian said.

“I think people found it funny,” he said. “For us, having the product, showing it and explaining the feel of it – I think that means something.”

And that, in a nutshell, is why watchmakers, in the great tradition of all luxury manufacturers, continue to be reluctant to sell online: they cling to the idea that a luxury purchase is more appealing when a potential buyer can touch and feel the product.

So where does this leave watch brands and retailers struggling to effectively showcase a product prized for its tangible qualities in today’s environment, where touch is either prohibited or restricted by social distancing?

“Virtual reality, Zoom, whatever – the focus will be on technology responding to a whole new world of opportunity that will make what we have now just the beginning,” Peter said. Noel Murray, a consumer psychology expert who is based in New York. “The in-store experience may never be replicated, but what choice do we have?”

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