London’s financial district, including both the Square Mile and Canary Wharf, have been hollowed out by the pandemic. Tower blocks, trading floors and covid-19 do not mix, at least according to SAGE and the government ministers it controls. Most institutions have sent the majority of their highly paid employees home for most of this year and into next.
That has not deterred Watches of Switzerland from pressing ahead with the opening of a new multibrand showroom in Broadgate, next door to Liverpool Street Station where our financial industry’s masters of the universe normally arrive on their daily commute.
WatchPro visited at lunchtime the day after the new showroom opened and were kindly shown around by the group’s retail director Matt Shields.
The small parade of stores at the base of 100 Liverpool Street, a gleaming 5-storey glass office block that sweeps around to Broadgate Circle where there is a cluster of fashionable bars and cafes that would normally be heaving with people grabbing lunch.
It was much quieter on the day of our visit, just two days after non-essential retail was allowed to reopen in London under tier 2 restrictions, but it was not deserted on the streets or in the showroom, where a number of customer consultations were taking place — all carefully socially distanced, sanitised and masked-up of course.
You could call the showroom three stores in one because there is a monobrand Omega boutique with its own entrance to one side and a Rolex room, accessed through the multi-brand area, to the other.
The multibrand area has roughly equal space for brands including Tudor, Audemars Piguet (relocated from Watches of Switzerland in Canary Wharf), IWC, Panerai, Hublot, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breitling and Cartier.
For the opening phase of the store, there is also a Cartier pop-up in a socialising area on the first floor where watches from its luxury gemset collection are being presented through to the new year. At the entrance downstairs, there is also a temporary exhibition of Ulysse-Nardin watches.
Watches of Switzerland is expert at working within the fabric and style of the buildings it occupies. This is sometimes a New York loft style layout in Soho, Manhattan or Regency architecture influence at its Brompton Road store in Knightsbrige.
In Broadgate, the two storey showroom is located in a rounded appendage of the all glass office building. This floods the space with light, but gives little to work off in terms of design cues.
I have a personal penchant for showrooms working in harmony with historic buildings and interesting architecture
Rather than adopting a unifying design for as much of the space as possible (good luck persuading Rolex to give up its lurid green leather sofas or Omega toning down its favoured red carpets), WoS has gone mainly with furniture and cabinets from the brands, so the opulent carpentry of IWC displays has to work with the more industrial feel of Hublot and the bonhomie of Breitling.
Some of these shop in shops have enough space for seating areas, others will see customers served over glass cabinets. This is the point of multibrand stores. They encourage customers to look at watches from multiple brands before settling down to try on a few.
Even if they come for a pre-booked appointment with a watch in mind to buy, there is every reason to give a tour of other brands that may stimulate future spending.
Rolex and Omega would prefer a more captive audience and WoS has obliged. Rolex has 56 square metres of liveried space over two floors with a number of private consultation areas. Omega has its own store.
Rolex’s area is somewhat compromised by the store’s staircase (there is also a lift) taking a bite out of its space, but it has been cleverly put to use with display cases and branded walls that stand behind a consultation bar.
Omega’s store is on one floor. It has a great glass frontage that draws people in, and an intimate retail area showing the latest watch collections under some lovely lighting.
Space for hospitality, events and private consultations is almost obligatory in luxury watch showrooms today, and WoS has devoted the majority of its first floor, bar Rolex, to entertaining.
There is a well-stocked bar, currently offering Cartier-branded champagne as part of its pop-up exhibition alongside barista coffee and other drinks and snacks.
The area Cartier currently occupies is a sizeable lounge with relaxing furniture for casual chats. Mr Shields says he hopes office workers will pop in for meetings and have a look at a few watches while they are there.
There is a big screen and projector that could be used for product presentations or, perhaps, sporting events so that people can mix the pleasure of luxury watches with the excitement of watching their football club.
The landlords are amenable to after-hours events, so this could become a regular hang out for customers.
I have visited many Watches of Switzerland stores on both sides of the Atlantic and, if I am honest, this would not make my top five.
I have a personal penchant for showrooms working in harmony with historic buildings and interesting architecture.
Modern mall-style glass showrooms are less to my taste, although I would say that Bucherer has been more successful at its West London showroom in the massive White City Westfield shopping centre because, away from shop in shops for Rolex, Omega and Cartier, its multibrand area eschews fixtures and furniture from the brands in favour of a unified style dictated by Bucherer. This gives it more continuity and makes you feel you are in the embrace of a retailer rather than fought over by a bunch of competing brands.
Watches of Switzerland in Hudson Yards in New York is another superior execution, again in an ultra-modern mall.
With the three biggest Swiss watch brands represented — Rolex, Omega and Cartier — plus Audemars Piguet, the showroom ticks all the important boxes. It is also great to see a challenger brand like Ulysse-Nardin getting a berth, and I hope there will be plenty of occasions for interesting independents to be given opportunities through Watches of Switzerland’s excellent Designers in Residence initiative. That will keep the affluent office workers interested and spending for years to come in a location that ought to be perfect for Watches of Switzerland.