“I see the website as the continuity of what we’re doing at brick and mortar,” says CEO Patrick Pruniaux, adding that, for now, the site is operational in the U.S. and U.K. “When someone puts a watch in a basket, they may not go to check out and that’s fine. If the e-commerce experience is good, it may continue in store.”
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Many of Mr. Pruniaux’s competitors, however, have shied away from direct-to-consumer online sales because they are reluctant to disrupt established distribution channels and upset longstanding relationships with multibrand partners. Though that dynamic, like many things in the era of Covid-19, is changing. Although few executives have come out and said it, the pandemic has clearly accelerated verticalization efforts, as brands come to terms with the consequences of global lockdowns.
Hublot went live with an e-commerce-enabled site earlier this month when it debuted the Big Bang e, the brand’s take on a luxury smartwatch. CEO Ricardo Guadalupe has been quoted as saying that with retail stores cut off during the crisis, the brand was forced into fast-tracking its digital platform.
Maximilian Büsser, founder and creative director of the Geneva-based independent brand MB&F, has taken a measured approach to e-commerce. The company’s sister brand, M.A.D Gallery, has offered online sales for years. In 2019, MB&F dipped its toes into e-commerce by offering some of its co-created table clocks through the gallery website. Next, the brand placed select pieces from its wristwatch collection—such as the HM10 Bulldog or its newest co-creation, the LM101 MB&F X H. Moser—online.
“The third step is to include selected pieces from our worldwide retail partners’ inventory—typically the last remaining piece of a series, only available at one of our retailers,” explains Charris Yadigaroglou, head of communications for MB&F. “We are discussing now with our partners which pieces, but we plan to go live with those around mid-June.”
Zenith has also gotten the e-commerce memo. The brand is expected to introduce an e-commerce site on July 2.
“As far as the commercial validity of e-commerce, it remains to be seen,” says Thierry Collot, brand director of Zenith USA. “It’s important to have it. Since we only have 30 doors in the whole country, we have customers who say, ‘I’m 60 miles away from this city, where do you want me to get my watch?’”
In stark contrast, the watch industry’s three most sought-after brands—Audemars Piguet, Rolex and Patek Philippe—remain steadfast in their commitment to brick-and-mortar retail. None offer direct e-commerce, nor do they allow their authorized dealers to sell online. (Patek Philippe briefly allowed its retailers to engage in e-commerce after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in March, but reversed that decision once the factory re-opened on April 27.)
“Honestly, they don’t need to do anything new to drive their business,” says Brian Duffy, CEO of the Watches of Switzerland Group, which owns numerous multi-brand stores in the U.S. and U.K. “They’re of the view that you really should come into the store and try on the product. And I really respect that view. But if any day they decide they can transact, we’ll do a huge business online.”
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