CORDER’S COLUMN: Swiss wake up to potential of online sales – but proceed with care

WatchPro managing editor Rob Corder.WatchPro managing editor Rob Corder.

Omega sold its first ever watches online on Tuesday.

Cartier kicked off online sales with The Watch Gallery in the UK and Tourneau in the United States last summer.

Georges Kern has been given a brief to oversee digital strategy for the whole of Richemont.

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The Swiss are waking up to selling watches online.

To be fair, the great maisons of Switzerland have not been ignoring selling online, they have been taking a conservative, cautious and incremental approach that has only recently brought them to the point of placing “add to basket” next to their watches.

We get a distorted view of this issue in the UK, because we are miles ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to online shopping.

In 2015, the Centre for Retail Research reported that 15.2% of all goods bought in the UK were ordered online. The European average was almost half that at 8.4%. Online sales in Italy accounted for just 2.5% of all sales.

This includes everything; hotels, flights, books and music dramatically outsell fashion and accessories like watches. And, the higher the price, the less likely people are to buy, so it is understandable luxury watch brands have not been rushing to take any risks online.

The risk versus reward calculation is changing all the time. Brands that saw the Internet as less than luxurious are starting to change their minds.

The greater danger is globalising retail channels, so that shoppers in every country trawl the web for the country with the cheapest deals – undermining retailers that invest millions in their shops and staff. The higher the price of a watch, the greater the differences in prices become – just look at the price advantage Britain held as the pound plunged this year.

However, doing nothing online has risks of its own. Buying an expensive watch is a journey for customers, and many in the UK want that journey to begin online, even if they eventually purchase in store.

I have been impressed with the attitude of the UK’s biggest groups: Aurum Holdings and The Watch Gallery, as they challenge brands to look at this issue through the eyes of their customers.

This has to be the starting point of any strategic review by the likes of Georges Kern and his peers at Swatch Group, LVMH, Rolex and Patek Philippe. Work out, country-by-country, how customers want to shop, and that will tell businesses how they should sell.

They should progress with caution, but progress they must.

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