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Craig Rottenberg (left) with his brother Judd in a picture taken for the WatchPro Hot 100.

THE BIG AMERICAN INTERVIEW: Playing the Long’s game in Boston

Long’s Jewelers is expanding in an increasingly competitive luxury watch market as Rob Corder discovered on a visit to its new Rolex showroom in Boston to meet CEO Craig Rottenberg ahead of an opening with Patek Philippe right across the street.

Long’s Jewelers is expanding in an increasingly competitive luxury watch market as Rob Corder discovered on a visit to its new Rolex showroom in Boston to meet CEO Craig Rottenberg ahead of an opening with Patek Philippe right across the street.

WATCHPRO: We are sitting here in the early Autumn sunshine of Boston in your beautiful new Rolex boutique that opened in 2021. Over the road on Newbury Street you have shown me the building site that will become a Long’s fine jewellery and Patek Philippe destination. What can you tell me about that project?

Craig Rottenberg: In time for the holidays, we will be opening a new two storey Long’s directly across from this Rolex showroom that will be our first Patek Philippe store.

The ground floor will be entirely dedicated to Patek Philippe and the second floor will be the traditional Long’s offering of fine jewelry, fashion jewelry, pre-owned jewelry and watches.

WATCHPRO: Forgive me for being obsessed with this, but I understand you have outdoor space on the second floor, a trend that seems to have blown up among retailers in the past couple of years, even those towards the north of the United States where the weather is not always the best.

Craig Rottenberg: We do, which in Boston may be used for only a limited part of the year, but we really intend to enjoy it.

WATCHPRO: Is that because customers want to see how their jewelry looks in natural light?

Craig Rottenberg: It is part of the shift in recent years towards focusing on customer experience. In our case, we saw that there was a rooftop for the building that was not used, so we are going to make it something special for our clients.

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Craig, Bob and Judd Rottenberg in the building site on Boston’s Newbury Street, which will become a two-storey Long’s Jewelers and Patek Philippe showroom.

WATCHPRO: You opened your Rolex showroom on Newbury Street in Boston before there was any real impetus for this becoming a destination for watch lovers, but that appears to have triggered a rush to open luxury watch boutiques.

Craig Rottenberg: It is pretty incredible what is happening here in Boston. This has always been a luxury street, but mostly for local businesses.

Now it has become a luxury destination. Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari, Rolex and Tiffany have been here for some time, and now that is being added to by Richard Mille, Breitling, Omega, Vacheron Constantin, IWC and Panerai.

Most of which are expected to be open for this year’s holiday season.

WATCHPRO: You are heavily invested in Newbury Street with your new Rolex monobrand and the Long’s Jewelry and Patek Philippe showroom across the street. When you see all the construction going on for these other brands opening their showrooms, do you think of that as increased competition or more of a draw to being people to this area for fine jewelry and watches?

Craig Rottenberg: More the latter. I have been to the Bond Streets of this world where luxury brands cluster together. New York has that, but it tends to be more spread out.

I really enjoy seeing brands come together in one place here in Boston. It feels like this is bringing customers to the area to see something special.

We are confident, with our brands, we will stand out against any competition.

WATCHPRO: The world has a few global cities that attract international customers. You mentioned London’s Bond Street, we could add Dubai, Paris, Hong Kong, 5th Avenue in New York and Rodeo Drive in LA to that list. Do you feel Boston is a city that appeals to tourist shoppers in the same way, or is this more of a domestic play?

Craig Rottenberg: Boston has always had a lot of international action, but tourism has picked up recently. People see it as an easy city to get to with plenty of direct flights.

The universities are an additional draw, the hospitals are a draw, so what we have seen in the two and a half years we have had this Rolex store is an incredible number of tourists. That has become stronger and stronger.

WATCHPRO: Most retailers in university cities tell me they get a bump at the start and end of the academic year as families fly in their precious offspring. Do you see that here with two of the top institutions in the world, Harvard and MIT, in your orbit?

Craig Rottenberg: We certainly see a back to school peak, but we also have a consistent level of regular tourism and business travel coming to Boston. This has become a major international city that attracts people from across the United States and overseas.

WATCHPRO: Boston is not known as a warm weather tourist destination, but have you seen that change at all as we have experienced summers that are quite uncomfortable in the Southern states?

Craig Rottenberg: I don’t know how that is going to play out. Last summer was very hot, this year has been rainy and cooler. In my lifetime here, it feels like the winters are milder with less snow, but it is hard to predict.

WATCHPRO: The Rolex store we are meeting in opened in 2021. How has business been here?

Craig Rottenberg: It has been amazing. Rolex has been an incredible brand for so many years. We could not be happier. It has exceeded our expectations.

There are challenges, but overall we could not be more delighted. Customers who come to this store are so positive about the experience.

We think that opening across the street is going to bring even more to Newbury Street. We are excited about the synergy of having Rolex, Patek Philippe and the Long’s offer in one place. Customers look to us for more than just Rolex, so we are excited to broaden our offer here.

Rolex boston vip 1Upstairs (above) and downstairs (below) in Long’s Rolex boutique in Boston.

Rolex boston 1WATCHPRO: I know you have other showrooms around the suburbs of Boston, but it must be exciting to be able to take clients on a journey from bridal jewelry and their first fine watches up to the prestigious brands you are now able to offer here in the heart of the city.

Craig Rottenberg: Exactly. At heart, we are a jeweler, but we have also built some fantastic relationships with watch brands that work together. Our goal, and we train our employees this way, is to be trusted by our clients as if we are part of their inner circle.

We are trusted advisers at important times of their lives, whether that is an engagement ring, a promotion or retirement. Sometimes that means advising them on an important piece of jewelry, other times it is a watch. Our strength is being in that position of trust, and then we figure out together what that means when it comes to special occasions and gifts.

WATCHPRO: Is this Rolex boutique your first standalone store for a watch brand? I sometimes find definitions for what is a shop in shop and what is a boutique confusing, but we can all see the direction of travel is for the biggest brands to encourage retailers to build bigger, better and more immersive points of sale.

Craig Rottenberg: This is our first monobrand store; our first boutique and our experience with Rolex has been that standards go through the roof when we work together in this way. It has been a joy to be on this street representing Rolex in this way.

WATCHPRO: As you know I am a forthright advocate for the strength of family-owned retailers embedded in their local communities. I wonder how you would describe those advantages meshing with a brand for customers when all they see here on Newbury Street is Rolex, rather than Long’s Jewelers.

Craig Rottenberg: A large proportion of customers understand that this is both Rolex and Long’s. Often buying a watch here might be the start of their journey, but when they need something else – another watch or a piece of jewelry – we will be there as Long’s to help them in one of our other stores.

Other customers come in looking purely for Rolex, as they might in any other Rolex store around the world, and that is OK as well. We make sure we uphold the Rolex standard in that case.

WATCHPRO: Newbury Street here in Boston is changing dramatically with a number of monobrand watch boutiques being opened and run directly by the brands. Setting Rolex and Patek Philippe aside, if that is possible, do you think you have an additional advantage being a family-owned independent operating branded stores in what will be a highly competitive street for luxury goods?

Craig Rottenberg: It is going to be interesting, particularly when we open our jewelry showroom [with Patek Philippe] over the street from this Rolex boutique. We think we have an enormous advantage with that jewelry offering.

I have nothing but the greatest respect for Tiffany’s, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpel, which are all on Newbury Street. They are amazing businesses with incredible jewelry, but I know sometimes customers want choice, flexibility, customization; they want the type of service where a family business can be more personal than the biggest operator.

If somebody is looking for a gorgeous sapphire or ruby ring, the global operators may not have a very big selection. They have a very specific procurement and design process that feeds into their stores.

In our case, we will often work directly with our clients to design exactly what they are looking for and source the perfect stones for them or a unique style, that is something more difficult for the big brand jewelers to bring.

WATCHPRO: When it comes to watchmakers like Rolex and Patek Philippe, we know that demand exceeds supply for many of their collections. How does building boutiques for these brands tip things in your favor when it comes to competing for allocations with other retailers?

Craig Rottenberg: It is difficult to answer that, because we are a retailer, not a manufacturer.

Without naming specific brands, certain companies have said: “this is our manufacturing process, this is our quality standard that we will never compromise”.

They will not compromise those standards to match supply to excess demand when it happens. They will just stick to their long term strategic goals.

Brands that have been able to resist that temptation to compromise are the ones that are achieving and will continue to achieve long term success.

Even though demand may be incredible, they are still focused on producing the best possible product.

WATCHPRO: What do you think about the acquisition of Bucherer by Rolex? Do you expect it to have an impact?

Craig Rottenberg: I think it is a fascinating business transaction. I am excited to see how it plays out. That is all I can say on the subject.

WATCHPRO: Along with your own jewelry collections and Patek Philippe in the new Newbury Street showroom, I believe you are also going to have a significant pre-owned watch offering. What can you tell me about that? Will it be pre-owned watches from all brands, or will it be devoted to Rolex CPO?

Craig Rottenberg: It will be a pre-owned space for all watch brands. As things stand, it will not be a location for official Rolex Certified Pre-Owned. We do hope to be part of that Rolex CPO program within the next six months, but the Newbury Street store will not be offering it.

WATCHPRO: How much visibility do you have over when and how you will become part of that Rolex CPO program?

Craig Rottenberg: We are all excited to work with Rolex and launch as soon as we can. The entire US community of independents is keen to push forward with it quickly.

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Certified pre-owned watches will be sold with a two year Rolex-backed guarantee.

WATCHPRO: There do appear to be some significant barriers to entry to the Rolex CPO program, such as having accredited watchmakers and workshops. Are you ready to go on that front?

Craig Rottenberg: We feel ready to join. We are fortunate that we have three Rolex-trained watchmakers; we have technicians; we have two watch shops, one in one of our suburban flagships and one in this boutique.

We have been in the pre-owned watch business for decades. Even though it has never been a primary part of what we do, we are looking forward to it stepping up.

WATCHPRO: For most watches, the pre-owned business is like the car business where customers expect second hand to be cheaper than new. That is not the case with Rolex right now. Do you think that will pose challenges when you might be trying to sell new watches at lower prices than pre-owned?

Craig Rottenberg: Who knows what the pre-owned business for watches will look like in five years’ time. It was not until the past few years that we have seen pre-owned prices above retail.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but I am confident there will be customers that want that official Rolex Certified Pre-Owned standard and the assurance that Rolex stands directly behind it.

I do not know whether that will be all customers or a part of the market. We will have to wait and see how it plays out.

WATCHPRO: From what I have seen so far at early partners like Bucherer, certified pre-owned Rolex watches are being advertised at 25% or more above the prices you see at pre-owned specialists. Do you think that sort of premium will endure?

Craig Rottenberg: I believe there will be a premium price for a premium product. How much of a premium we are all watching and waiting to see. I am not in the business of predicting that because I will probably make a lot of bad bets.

WATCHPRO: Long’s has this Rolex boutique right in the heart of Boston’s luxury district on Newbury street, but you have other showrooms in suburban neighborhoods and shopping malls. How do the economics of each location vary and affect your strategy?

Craig Rottenberg: Out strategy has been to always set up stores that make sense for our customers. The suburbs of Boston have always been very affluent and we want to play in those affluent areas.

Each community tends to shop in their own part of the city, and not travel north to south or south to north. We love our suburban locations. They have served us really well.

Our more recent focus on the centre of Boston, and particularly here on Newbury Street, is driven by our partnerships with Rolex and Patek Philippe and by our belief that we need to keep elevating our brand.

I have been part of building Long’s for almost 20 years and we now feel ready to go toe to toe with the likes of Tiffany’s and Cartier.

On the jewelry front, we are going to have designers who are unique to Boston producing jewelry that can rival anything the likes of Tiffany and Cartier can do from a quality standpoint, and with the additional advantage of coming from designers with roots here in Boston.

We have curated a list of designers that are either unique to this city, or at least to the northeast of the United States, and we are very excited about presenting them to our customers.

WATCHPRO: I noticed during my research ahead of this interview that you are holding a closing down sale for one of your stores. What’s happening there?

Craig Rottenberg: That is a move, not a closure. If you look at the history of Long’s, we used to have a number of mall locations. In the late nineties, we began moving out of malls and into positions on nearby streets.

These were typically four times larger and generated much higher sales. We realized we did not need to be in malls to attract customers. We could have our own parking lots, we felt more secure and the economics were much better.

Over time, we took this experience and have moved all our mall stores into freestanding locations.

Our last mall store, in a town called Braintree to the south of Boston, is moving out to a large freestanding former Barnes & Noble building. It is 11,000 square feet and will be a Long’s Jewelers with a range of watch brands.

New braintree store 2Long’s is moving out of a mall store in Braintree, to the south of Boston, to a large freestanding former Barnes & Noble building. It is 11,000 square feet and will be a Long’s Jewelers with a range of watch brands.

WATCHPRO: You have plenty in the pipeline with Braintree and the new Long’s Jewelers and Patek Philippe location here on Newbury Street, but can you look beyond those projects and see any other opportunities you are keen to pursue?

Craig Rottenberg: We are opportunistic. Whether that is new locations or new product lines, we are always open to ideas. Our online operation has potential to grow, particularly with jewelry.

There are a lot of families looking to exit the business, so there may be opportunities for acquisitions. We do not tend to stand still for long.

WATCHPRO: We see so many branded watch stores opening on this street. These projects were started during a period of exceptional strength in luxury watch sales in the United States. Will they survive if the market cools? Might manufacturers find retail tougher than they anticipated? Perhaps a mixed performance will create opportunities for Long’s to take over some of these boutiques?

Craig Rottenberg: I would be surprised if all of these new stores are still here in five years’ time. Some of them will be here forever, but I doubt all of them will make it. Let’s see what happens.

Even with our new location with Patek Philippe on the ground floor and a mix of Long’s jewelery and pre-owned watches on the second floor, we may decide there is potential for an additional branded watch store or somewhere specializing in just bridal jewelry. We will see.

WATCHPRO: And I noticed there is a very large vacant space down the street on the corner of Newbury and Berkeley Street. Is that tempting you?

Craig Rottenberg: [laughs] That is a former Brooks Brothers building. It is huge. It is the last unit on this block that is available. We will see what happens there.

Brooks brothersA former Brooks Brothers store occupies a prime corner of Newbury Street in Boston and is ripe for redevelopment.

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