WatchWarehouse boss on going from clicks to bricks

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When most watch retailers dismissed the web as a fad, Craig Rebuck was busy founding what started as an eBay shop and evolved into a powerful e-tail machine. Now as shops are shutting and online booms, he speaks to Rachael Taylor about bucking the trend again and taking WatchWarehouse to the high street.

By all accounts the high street is not a great place to be; with business rates on the up and UK shop vacancy hitting nearly 15%, it almost beggars belief that a successful watch e-tailer would chose now as the right time to open its first bricks-and-mortar store, but that is exactly what WatchWarehouse is doing.

For managing director Craig Rebuck it is all about retail evolution. While for many retailers – and indeed Rebuck’s own family business – the internet has been the evolution that has had to be adopted, for WatchWarehouse the reverse is true and now it is retail that is the evolution.

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WatchWarehouse started out in 2007 as an eBay store, but the family business that is behind it charts its history back to 1910 when Julian Lewis – Rebuck’s great grandfather, and a watchmaker – opened a store called J Lewis and Sons in London’s Moorgate. The business later changed its name to Peter Burrowes in 1939 and in 1977 Rebuck joined the company as a fourth-generation jeweller.

Throughout its history, Peter Burrowes sold both watches and jewellery, but Rebuck’s passion has always lain in the watch industry, and also in finding alternative channels to get to consumers.

“The first experience I had outside of a retail store was doing something called Westminster Cable TV, marketing Swatch watches direct to the shopper and marketing the Peter Burrowes store through the TV,” recalls Rebuck. “My interest has always been finding alternative routes to the consumer that are easy, because consumers are getting lazier.”

This all-embracing attitude towards the alternative held Rebuck in good stead when in 2007 his plans to launch the WatchWarehouse website were somewhat scuppered by the economic climate. “The recession happened within three months of us deciding to do it, so we decided to use the eBay channel and that worked,” he says.

EBay proved to be a solid learning ground for WatchWarehouse, particularly when it came to navigating the trials of managing a high-volume sales strategy.

“The plan had never been not to launch WatchWarehouse.co.uk,” says Rebuck. “We just took the first year to learn in a safe way, without damaging our brand or customer relationships, by going through the eBay route. We could learn what actually happens when you have to shift a large number of watches in a short space of time.”

Rebuck says that the success of his brand is pinned on shoppers in the 21 to 45 age group that are “occasionally cash rich and often time poor” and the key to unlocking that success is to be able to satisfy their retail desires as fast as possible. “If a customer comes to your store you can serve them, you can make them feel comfortable and confident, and once you have made the sale the product goes into a bag and they are happy,” he says. “When you are sitting at home [shopping online], from the moment you click pay you have to wait and the wait creates a negative experience.”

To make sure that negative experiences are not found at WatchWarehouse, it has always been standard practice to offer next day delivery, or same day if the purchase is being sent within the M25.

With a quick turnaround and a stack of affordable fashion-led brands, WatchWarehouse flew; in its first Christmas it sold 1,580 watches in 24 hours. And as shoppers became more confident, its online offer expanded and it now carries higher price points, such as a men’s Raymond Weil Nabucco selling for £3,295 and for ladies the diamond-set Raymond Weil Jasmine at £1,995.

“Our first year, it was always price driven so we did the lower-priced models as it’s easier to sell as there is no risk factor,” says Rebuck. “As the years have gone on, the price model has gone higher and higher and the consumer feels comfortable spending over £1,000 on a watch online.”

Within a very short space of time, WatchWarehouse was outstripping the original Peter Burrowes shop. For Rebuck it was a confirmation that the decision to jump ahead of the curve to take watches online was a financially sound one, as well as being perfectly suited to his desire to be a retail pioneer.

With the evidence weighing up in favour of an online business model – the company has plans to move its warehouse to an expanded facility in February – it would make absolutely no sense at all for WatchWarehouse to look to anywhere but cyberspace for further growth, or would it?

After five years building up an online-only business, and doing it successfully, Rebuck and his team made the bold decision to take online offline, and as the world directed its attention to east London for the Olympics, in west London – Edgware Road, to be exact – WatchWarehouse quietly replaced Peter Burrowes.

While some family members were less than pleased about the end of Peter Burrowes, a name that had represented the family business for 63 years, Rebuck felt it was the right move, believing that WatchWarehouse is the stronger brand and an easier name for customers to connect with.

The store itself is a blend of tradition and modernity, the perfect store for a multichannel age; downstairs traditional glass display cabinets are accented with iPads linked up to the WatchWarehouse website and upstairs, in the private sales area, is a permanent augmented reality feature created by Holition that allows shoppers to virtually try on watches right next to a selection of real ones.

In the few months since its opening, Rebuck says that the flow between online and offline has been suitably fluid. It is not just a theory; shoppers are becoming truly multichannel. The examples Rebuck gives of this is that the click and collect function is proving popular, so much so it has plans to focus marketing on it, and shoppers buying watches online are coming into the store to have the straps adjusted.

Rebuck has big plans for WatchWarehouse’s high street presence; the shop in London is just the start. He has forecast to open five more stores in the next 18 months, the locations of which he says are yet to be decided and will be dependent on finding perfect locations in areas that will prove fruitful.

This is part of the beauty of coming from online to the high street rather than the other way round – the masses of data already accrued on where its best customers live, where the majority of its customers live, what they like to buy in particular areas of the country; all priceless information that can reduce risk if used wisely.

And risk is not something that Rebuck is blasé about. When I put it to him that many investors are shying away from the high street, he admits that his strategy is not without risk but he believes that a global downturn is no excuse to stand still. “I’m worried about interest rates and the global crisis but what am I going to do about it? I can stand and moan all day or I can do something about it. This is my third recession, and you have to fight. I believe the economic cycle will change over the next few years and we want to be on the up before the curve rather than saying it’s on the up, oh let’s start. I know we’re taking a risk, but it’s calculated.”

While shop vacancy rates in the UK are hitting nearly 15%, Rebuck believes that this is down to the survival of the fittest, and he feels that WatchWarehouse has something viable to bring to the UK high street.

“People have been closing down shops that have not been profitable,” he says. “We feel we have a proposition that is different to other high street watch retailers. We want to see something where the customer is king. They want to enjoy their experience. We want it to be fun to buy a watch.”

With a plan to expand into the high street, will there be a day when bricks and mortar will overtake the web business? “I think it’s a pendulum, I think it will swing. It will depend on the time of year; we will always sell more volumes online at Christmas time, you just can’t sell that amount of units online during a day in a store.”

Rebuck says that he likes to think of himself as swimming upstream while the rest of the industry is enjoying the downhill flow. When retailers laughed at the idea of selling watches online, WatchWarehouse was born and now that watch retailers are catching up and trying to shave overheads while boosting sales by embracing the web, WatchWarehouse is now tackling the high street. But what is most promising about the business model that Rebuck is carving out is his notion of a pendulum. Truly excellent multichannel retail finds a way not to split customers between those who shop online and those who shop in store, but unify the two experiences and cater for all. With the first WatchWarehouse offline store testament to clear thinking on that point this could be an exciting new evolution for watch retailing on the British high street, as well as the world wide web.

This article was taken from the November 2012 issue of WatchPro. To read the issue in full online, click here.

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