Bucherer, the world’s biggest luxury watch and jewelry retailer, bought Tourneau in January last year, just months after its main European rival The Watches of Switzerland Group acquired Mayors and announced plans to expand in key cities including New York and Las Vegas.
The race is on to bring global expertise and investment to a market that these giants think is ripe for expansion. Having given you an insight into the plans from Watches of Switzerland from the group’s chief executive Brian Duffy, we put the case for Bucherer here with the vision from chief commercial officer Patrick Graf and marketing and communications director Jörg Baumann.
It is a year since the world’s largest jewelry and watch group Bucherer bought the 28-store nationwide chain Tourneau in January 2018 and organized the business under the American subsidiary Bucherer USA.
Seven months later, in August of last year, the company added to its network by buying Baron & Leeds, another premier jeweler that operates Rolex branded boutiques and two multi-brand stores in California and Hawaii.
Now operating 32 stores, most with Rolex as an anchor brand, Bucherer USA is in a head-to-head battle with The Watches of Switzerland Group, the UK’s largest top end group that notched sales of around $1 billion in 2018.
Bucherer is not a recognized name to the American watch-buying public or even the watch-selling retailers with which it is now competing. Both communities would be well-advised to do their research on the group, which most analysts think is the biggest luxury jeweler in the world.
Bucherer was founded by Carl-Friedrich and Luise Bucherer in 1888 in Lucerne, Switzerland, as a husband and wife family jeweler. The founders’ sons, Ernst and Carl Eduard Bucherer turbo-charged the business from the 1920s onwards thanks largely to forging a partnership with Rolex, a relatively unknown brand at the time that had been launched 20 years earlier by Hans Wilsdorf. The brothers also created their own watch brand, Carl F. Bucherer, which is being introduced to America through the Tourneau network of stores.
Having survived World War II’s devastation of Europe, Bucherer focused its energy on the retail side of the business, branching out from Lucerne with additional showrooms across Switzerland, and later in the 20th century with expansion into Austria and Germany under the third generation of the family Jörg G. Bucherer. In 2016 the business opened the world’s largest watch and jewelry store in Paris and a year later bought a stake in the rapidly expanding UK market with the acquisition of The Watch Gallery in 2017, which runs the world-famous Wonder Room of fine watches in London’s Selfridges.
The global Bucherer network now comprises 16 locations in Switzerland, five in the UK, one in France, 11 in Germany, one in Austria, one in Denmark and 32 in the United States. There are some of the biggest flagship stores in the world, smaller shopping mall stores and airport boutiques. The group also owns the jeweler Kurz, which has 12 stores in Switzerland and Swiss Lion, which has another three. Most are multi-brands — a format in which the business passionately believes — but also a handful of Rolex monobrands that reflect the continuing importance of its relationship with the world’s biggest luxury watchmaker.
Bucherer’s scale, its family-owned structure and its roots within the Swiss watch industry have made it a preferred partner for every major watchmaker. Its original Lucerne store, which is now a huge flagship, reportedly sells more Rolexes than any other point of sale in the world. Tourists queue for hours just to enter the store, which is seen as by many as the closest they can get to buying direct from the original creators of Rolex.
The decades-old, multi-generational relationships with Switzerland’s watchmaking families has led to the creation in recent years of Bucherer Blue Editions, a family of watches created especially for Bucherer by 31 of the world’s most respected watchmakers. Patek Philippe and Rolex are two notable absentees from the roster, although Tudor does make Blue Editions.
The reverence and respect that Bucherer commands in Europe has not yet been felt in the United States, despite the business owning Tourneau for a year. None of the Tourneau stores have yet been rebranded so Bucherer is still virtually unknown. The introduction of Carl F. Bucherer watches to some of the stores is the only visible sign that the network has new owners. Bucherer Blue Editions, which are highly sought after by collectors around the world, will not go on sale in the United States until Bucherer’s name is above the door of its stores.
It is surprising that Bucherer has not started refurbishing and re-naming Tourneau’s stores because under their previous private equity owner, Green Equity Investors, the chain was seen to be drifting and suffering from under-investment.
Patrick Graf, chief commercial officer for Bucherer world-wide, told WatchPro in December that it would take almost two more years before fully re-furbished and re-named stores will appear. “We are working on the refurbishment plan for New York’s Time Machine, which is one of the most iconic flagship stores in the world. We are also working on the refurbishment plan of Tourneau in Las Vegas, which is another 2000 square metres (21,500 sqf). This is one of the largest multi-brand stores in the world,” Mr Graf discloses. “We have said that we want both of these stores to be re-opened before the holiday season in 2020, so a little bit less than two years from now. That is the target date for rebranding of all Bucherer-owned stores in the United States,” he adds.
Bucherer Blue Edition watches are a small but important part of the business’s turnover, dwarfed by the likes of Rolex but symbolically important because they can only be bought at Bucherer-branded stores. Mr Graf hints that there may be opportunities to showcase the Blue Editions and other parts of Bucherer’s portfolio including its fine jewelry before its family name appears in US cities, but will not be drawn on details. “We are thinking about some projects that will bring the Bucherer name to the US a little bit earlier, but we do not have anything to officially announce yet. We would hope that Bucherer Blue Editions could be part of that,” he explains.
Pop-up presentations at US airports could be a way of raising awareness for the brand. Bucherer showed how this might be done at a showcase in Zurich Airport during the holiday season where a large stand showed Blue Edition watches from all 32 of its partners. There was also a one-off customized Harley Davidson motorcycle and a unique Lamborghini Aventador created in conjunction with Roger Dubuis, an ultra-high end Swiss watchmaker. The Lamborghini could be bought along with its sibling Roger Dubuis watch for CHF 888,888 (8 is the Bucherer’s favorite number because of its founding year of 1888).
The two years it will take to re-fashion Tourneau and Baron & Leeds stores seems a long time, but the program is complex and expensive, according to Mr Graf, who promises the wait will be worth it. “We believe that there has been a lack of investment in the luxury watch retail space in the United States. There are a lot of tired and shabby stores, service has not been great everywhere, and the experience has not been the best for many reasons. Now Bucherer is stepping into that business and we will definitely bring some European spirit to the United States. We have big plans on how to improve the physical store experience. We are working on a brand new concept for Time Machine in New York, and I can tell you it is going to set a new benchmark, not just for the watch industry, but for the entire luxury retail sector. We have just received the latest renderings and it looks amazing. Unfortunately it will take another two years, but it is going to be a game-changing store,” he promises.
The US market will not stand still waiting for Bucherer. The Watches of Switzerland Group has already opened one of the country’s most sophisticated stores in the SoHo district of Manhattan last month along with a cluster of monobrand watch stores in Las Vegas for the likes of Breitling, Rolex and Omega alongside a massive multi-brand showroom.
Mr Graf concedes that its rival is moving quickly, but says the prestigious location of its flagship Time Machine makes its upgrade more difficult than opening a new store in lower Manhattan. “Time Machine on 57th Street is quite a complex location. We are part of Trump Tower, so in terms of logistics it is more complicated than opening in SoHo,” he suggests.
The complexities of real estate projects aren’t the only challenge. Bucherer has to get to grips with myriad nuances of the American market, which has broken myriad European retail groups that have tried to crack it in the past. Jörg Baumann, marketing and communications director and member of group Management at Bucherer says that Tourneau and Bucherer have formed a sub-group that are sharing best practice. “We have people like Patrick Graf traveling back and forth to the US regularly. He is in constant discussions about how we can best support each other. There is a lot we can learn from the Tourneau team about the US market. The US is more advanced when it comes to ecommerce, so we are learning from each other,” he describes. “We are talking about future projects, new retail spaces; we are discussing how we can best represent Bucherer in the United States, which is a very competitive market,” he adds.
Bucherer will not simply refurbish Tourneau stores in order to bring them up to today’s standard, it is looking at ways of setting new benchmarks that make them attractive to the next generation of watch lovers. “We are taking a hard look at what the future of retail might look like, and how our future stores may need to adapt to always be leaders. Future stores will need to be more experience-driven, less transactional. It needs hospitality so that stores can become meeting places for customers. Every time we look at upgrades, not only in the United States but also in Europe, we will look at how we need to adapt our concept,” Mr Baumann explains.
Scale is important to the Bucherer way of retailing, particularly because the business believes in the power of multibrand stores at a time when many watchmakers want to open their own branded boutiques. “Think about the Paris store, which is the largest in the world. You could spend a few hours in there learning about watches from many, many brands, or you could spend three days walking around the whole of Paris trying to do the same thing going from one monobrand to another,” Mr Baumann suggests.
But size is not everything, Mr Baumann urges. Culture, marketing and staff training are also constantly evolving and creating unique selling points against small and large competitors. “The direction we are heading is not about small versus large; it is about static versus dynamic. Obviously scale gives us an advantage if we use it correctly to be more dynamic. For example, we have a fantastic marketing team that develops fresh ideas; we have professional store design teams, which is more of a challenge for smaller retailers,” he concludes.