Seiko UK is poised for growth, with a refreshed product offer focused on getting back to basics and an hq bustling with potential. Rachael Taylor visits its maidenhead facility to find out just how much watchmaking Seiko can do in the UK and to hear about the company’s revival plans for its core lines.
Sometimes when a brand becomes so ingrained in the mind of the consumer, the product itself can become invisible. Hoover, Sellotape, Coke; these are all brand names that have become so synonymous with the products they are best known for that the handles are used for similar products from other brands.
While nobody would refer to a watch as a Seiko unless it was one, the brand has become so well known on the high street that people perhaps have stopped looking at it. This is something that the Japanese watch company has realised and over the past few years we have witnessed it try to grab headlines with ego-driven projects such as timepieces that break technological barriers, such as the Seiko GPS Astron, which when revealed at BaselWorld in March was the first world timer controlled by GPS, and seriously expensive wristwatches from upmarket arm Credor that sit firmly in the luxury echelons with prices hitting nearly £250,000 for a minute repeater.
But back on the British high street, it has never been the most technologically advanced or expensive models that have fired up the shopping public. Instead it is the lower end of Seiko’s ranges – the watches that sit in the £150 to £400 bracket – that have steadily ticked over, if not whipped up a frenzy.
This is a sector of Seiko’s offer that Seiko UK director of sales and marketing Dave Harnby believes has been neglected of late; something he views as dangerous as it is the category he believes has the most potential.
“Last year we added a lot of starter-price product and now we are fulfilling what the Seiko consumer is looking for,” he says. “We have repositioned the price band and the heart of what Seiko is all about is now fully supported with product.”
Harnby says that it is a group-wide initiative to focus more heavily on core product and less on watches that he describes as “too technologically scary”. By focusing on lower prices it also encourages younger shoppers to embrace the brand, something that Seiko’s aging demographic has needed to ensure its success in the future. “It’s a global initiative,” reveals Harnby. “We have a strong reputation for elite products, and we’re still developing nicely, but we want a younger slant.”
“We do not want to dismiss our loyal fan base but we have to get as much market share as it deserves with this product range,” adds Seiko UK group marketing manager Kirsten Crisford.
So things are set to change. While the price category is right, according to Harnby, the watches within it don’t need to be basic and the company is testing the water with some watches that, for it, are fairly edgy.
Ceramic watches have been eating up market share for the past few years and Seiko has been slow in to getting to the party, only releasing its first batch of watches with ceramic last year, but it is a growing sector for the company and an area that it intends to develop. Its white ceramic ladies watches have proved to be particularly popular, both with female staff, who can all be seen wearing them during WatchPro’s tour of its UK headquarters in Maidenhead, and with consumers on the high street.
While it is white ceramic watches are grabbing the attention of female staff at Seiko, the male contingency in the office all seem to have opted for something a little brighter – a Seiko Sportura that has been brought to life with splashes of neon green (it just so happens that Daniel Malins of WatchPro was also wearing one on the day of the visit). This again is something new for Seiko, the use of colour. The Sportura range, which is the official watch of the FC Barcelona football team, is a popular watch at Seiko and the new versions of this model featuring bright colour splashes further strengthen this line.
Also using colour is the brand’s Matrix collection, which is a futuristic collection reminiscent of the film Tron in its use of neon shades set against a slick black canvas of shiny ION-plated steel that has the appearance of ceramic.
And something a bit more subdued from the brand is an as yet unnamed watch that is internally referred to at Seiko UK as the Marmite watch, because, well, you either love it or hate it. The watch is a classic men’s design that matches a racing green dial and a silver stainless steel case with a brown alligator-style strap. Again, this is a deviation in design from Seiko’s usual sporty numbers and its gentlemanly cool reminiscent of heritage fashion brands such as Barbour has certainly won WatchPro’s vote.
“We want to make Seiko more outstanding,” explains Seiko UK brand manager David North. “There is a willingness to try new things.”
Harnby says that the changes being made to the Seiko offer in the UK are a collaborative effort between Japan and the UK office. “In terms of product development, it doesn’t happen overnight,” says Harnby. “We want to drive it forward and the product offer is as strong as it’s ever been.”
But changes are being implemented, the most potent of which is probably the expansion of its ladies’ collections. Seiko has built a reputation on functional, sporty watches, which lends itself better to the men’s market than the ladies’ but from here on in ladies are about to become a real focus for Seiko in the UK.
To give an example of how far down the pecking order ladies have been at Seiko to date, last Christmas the brand only released two diamond-set ladies watches, something that Harnby says was unacceptable. This Christmas stockists will have the option of 25 different diamond-set designs alone. “It will be a really important Christmas for us with all the changes we’ve made,” says Harnby. “We hope to be up on last Christmas.”
Marketing is also being geared around the ladies this year and the brand has just signed Darya Klishina, a 21-year-old Russian long jumper who is now the female face of the Sportura line. As well as being a successful sportswoman, Klishina looks like a supermodel with soft feminine features that will bring a much more girly aspect to the brand, something it has been lacking to date.
Klishina’s image next to that of a Sportura ladies watch will be presented to an audience of what Seiko UK expects to be about 35 million this year when the brand will run ads with the athletics star in magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair, as well as in UK shopping malls in the last two weeks of November.
The Klishina campaign is part of a wider marketing push for Seiko UK in 2012 that will include the company running a major TV advertising campaign featuring its men’s Sportura lines alongside brand ambassadors FC Barcelona. The TV ads will run between December 1 and 17 with the 30 second ad booked to run 2,800 times, equating to nearly 24 hours of exposure.
Seiko UK says that the ads will run on all digital channels but that a third of its investment is geared towards playing ads around high-rating ITV shows.
Although Seiko is a global company of an impressive stature it is still a family-owned business and in that respect not as corporate as some other watch giants, and Harnby says that this family attitude is extended to the UK division and while the office has to make sure that the company’s operations are complying with the global brand messages Seiko HQ is broadcasting, the directors put their faith in the UK team.
This allows Seiko UK in its role as a distributor as well as a brand to take on new brands that it believes will work in the UK market that company would perhaps not get involved with on a global level. The Binda UK operation within the group, which is a joint venture between Seiko UK and Binda Spa and houses brands including Breil and Moschino, has made quite a few acquisitions in the past year as has Seiko UK, with a focus on sporty brands in particular. New to the stable in 2012 include Converse, Asics, Kenneth Cole, Shark and Hip Hop.
“[This expanded portfolio] gives us lots of options to take to retailers,” says Harnby. “Not every brand will stay forever but it allows us to see what works.”
It also allows Binda to approach retailers outside of the traditional watch channels, such as targeting running shops with Asics. Although this is not entirely new territory for Seiko UK as the company has been ploughing such non-watch furrows with its clocks division, which accounts for about 5% of sales by value this year and has most recently found new markets by exhibiting at Harrogate gift fair for the first time.
This encouragement from Japan to be independent has also led to the UK division setting up a lot of processes at its Maidenhead headquarters that allow it to handle the majority of its day -to-day business without having to rely on Japan.
A major part of the business at Seiko UK is repairs. Seiko UK head of customer satisfaction Dave Powell, who has been with the company for 30 years in various roles, reveals that 60,000 repairs jobs pass through the building each year, ranging from battery changes to complete overhauls. It also sells 750,000 watch batteries each year.
This is a striking number of repairs and battery sales, but before the impression that perhaps these numbers are so high because Seiko watches need to be fixed a lot, Powell jumps in to say that the reason for the high volumes is actually because the watches are such good quality, something that Powell says can be a curse as well as a blessing. He explains that there used to be an old advertising campaign for Seiko watches that used the tag line “your watch for life”, and he says that some of its customers hold on to this very tightly. “The younger ones who buy the fashion brands understand that when it’s two years old and it breaks that’s fine and they go and get the latest one, but some people still think that a watch is for life,” says Powell a little wistfully. “There are people who are still sentimental about watches.”
Because of these repairs expectations, the warehouse at Seiko UK has to hold spare parts for practically every watch ever made by Seiko, leading to a whole room dedicated to hundreds of drawers of spare parts. Although Powell says that when a watch is safely thought to be obsolete then they will dump the parts to make space for the constant stream of new models.
Powell says that this is an important part of customer service at Seiko, being able to fix any watch that is sent in because customers are becoming increasingly demanding. “Now expectations are a lot higher as they know customer service is important to companies,” says Powell.
He goes on to describe how some customers react angrily when a watch is in need of a repair, even if the model is decades old and hasn’t been cared for properly by its owner. “You wouldn’t ask the same questions about a car, but they often can’t believe that they have to pay,” he says. “We’ve found that in the age of the internet if you can’t meet their expectations they can pass on their experience to a vast audience and we can’t argue back. They only way to beat that is to raise our game.”
Because Seiko UK has its own team of watchmakers on site, it can offer fast repairs. Powell says that 60% of watches sent in for repair are repaired within one to five working days and 90% of the remainder are completed within six to 10 days. He describes it as “one of the fastest turnarounds in the industry”.
Only when there is a truly technical issue with a watch or a part that is tricky to find will there be a delay, and only rarely in those cases does a watch ever have to be sent to Japan.
The watchmakers at Seiko UK vary in terms of skill levels and are led by Andre Griffith, who is a master watchmaker, having completed his Seiko Certified Watchmaker training, something that is deemed to be tougher than British Horological Institute courses and that only two people a year worldwide manage to pass.
Tucked behind the watchmaking floor is logistics; warehouses of vast proportions that house all Seiko and Binda products as they are prepared to be sent to retailers all over the country. At any one time there can be 2,236 lines in stock – that is lines, not individual watches – and the warehouse receives two to three containers from Japan each month, each containing 300 boxes of watches.
With such a high volume of high-value product flowing through the warehouse, efficiency is of the utmost importance. Seiko UK has an incredible track record of stock accuracy averaging between 99% and 100% each month. Only towards the end of last summer is there any irregularity on the yearly sheet, which Seiko UK distribution centre supervisor Linda Edinburgh explains was actually a positive because the failure to be accurate was the result of a last-minute large order from a multiple retailer ahead of the Christmas period. While she likes to maintain her impressive record, Edinburgh says she was happy to let this one slip.
Seiko UK is an impressive set up with huge facilities right here in the UK that perhaps not many know the full extent of with more than 125 staff and some world-class watchmaking facilities. This mixed with a positively evolving product offer, something that has been long overdue, sets the UK division of this iconic Japanese watchmaker in good stead to pull off the overhaul that it feels it so desperately needs and to keep building for the future. As Harnby says: “We’re a business geared up for growth and we intend to grow.”
This article was taken from the September 2012 issue of WatchPro magazine, out now. To view a digital version of the magazine click here.