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Time Products launches turnaround plan for Sekonda

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2020-21 accounts for Almar PLC, the holding company of Time Products UK and Time Products Luxury, make painful reading.

Granted, the luxury part of the business responsible for retail in Mayfair has all but wound down, but turnover in the pandemic-ravaged year to January 2021 was down 59% on the prior 12 months and almost all that fall was came from Time Products UK, owner of Sekonda, Accurist and Limit.

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A new leadership team joined the business in the autumn of last year, headed by Alison Forrestal, a former Amazon and Diageo executive, who is embarking on a root and branch overhaul of the company. Rob Corder met with her to find out how the turnaround plan is progressing.

Even before the pandemic hit, Time Products, owner of the keenly priced Sekonda, Accurist and Limit watch brands, was planning a grand transformation.

Smartwatches and fitness trackers were grabbing the wrists of customers who had always prized the value for money that Time Products brands delivered, but wanted more functionality like activity tracking and alerts.

Traditional high street retailers, including giant multiples like H.Samuel and F.Hinds, but mainly small independents, were turning their backs on volume timepieces because the market had moved so rapidly online and family businesses could not compete for search engine position with the likes of Amazon.

Worse was to come — much worse — when covid hit because Time Products’ greatest strength became a devastating weakness; its travel retail business collapsed as tourism and business flights were grounded for a year. This was on top of the closure of all non-essential retail for months, and the general feeling of panic that gripped the world in the earliest weeks of the crisis.

For a company with less deep reserves, this would have been an existential threat. For Time Products, owned by Marcus Margulies — a man with the means to buy and restore an entire five-storey town house in Mayfair with the same attention to detail as a Swiss watchmaker, and reported as worth £135 million in the 2018 Sunday Times Rich List — it was an opportunity to pivot towards a different future and bring in fresh ideas from outside the watch industry.

Time Products managing director David Merriman and Trevor James, MD of its biggest brand Sekonda, both retired last summer. This made way for a new all-female commercial leadership team headed by Alison Forrestal, who became chief executive officer, and Kara Groves, the new commercial director.

Alison Forrestal, CEO of Time Products.

Both come from outside the traditional watch industry. Ms Forrestal has held senior roles at drinks giant Diageo, and Amazon, where she was UK head of books and media. Ms Groves comes from the fashion world, where she was chief operating officer for Joules and Mint Velvet.

Rounding out the leadership team were marketing director Paul Clarke, who joined from Monster Energy and Cancer Research UK; and James Churchman, who becomes ecommerce director. He has previously worked at Sofa.com, Pottermore.com and Bathstore.com. Amanda Coombs, a former Alltrucks executive, took over the crucial role of HR director.

Trevor Kirkpatrick continued as brand director for Limit, while Gus Webbe remained in place on product development.

“I thank David for his role in the exceptional development of the company and Trevor for his enthusiasm and unstinting belief in the power of the Sekonda and Seksy brands. We run a family business which values loyalty and tries to create an environment in which people can give of their best. I welcome Alison and her new team on board and know they are ready to drive our future strategy to reflect evolving consumer buying habits which are now moving at a much faster pace than anyone could have predicted. I wish the new team and our partners every success for peak trading in these difficult times and a change of fortune in 2021,” Mr Margulies said in September 2020.

The new executive team spent time understanding the volume watch market and Time Products’ place within it through consumer research, but more importantly set about a root and branch transformation of the internal systems and strategies. “We moved from paper to digital,” Ms Forrestal remarks with a grimace in a recent conversation with WATCHPRO.

While obviously not literally the case that the business had barely entered the computer age, let alone the social-media obsessed era around us today, it was hard to argue that the company was even on the same playing field as Amazon or Argos. Time Products was still fighting with bows and arrows while the tech giants had lasers.

From late last year to the summer of 2021, several things were moving at once. The business moved to the all-singing-all-dancing SAP business intelligence system. The same system, incidentally, that Brian Duffy credits for transforming Watches of Switzerland Group.

You need to be prepared to invest time, money and emotional capital into an SAP transformation because it requires everything to change. In the case of Time Products it brought order and oversight from manufacturing in the Far East to stock management and distribution at the headquarters in Leicestershire and right out to retailers’ points of sale.

Simultaneously, Ms Groves was transforming the commercial operation. Previously, sales people worked on one of Time Products’ brands, and sold hard into retailers and other international channels. The new plan was for the team to sell all brands together, but specialise in the various channels: travel retail, multiples, independents, ecommerce, etc.

Ecommerce growth is vital to the business, and it intends to expand on two fronts: first, by supporting its retail partners with great digital marketing assets, rapid turnaround times and even drop shipping at times so they do not have to hold stock. The second front is selling Sekonda, Accurist and Limit direct to consumers from Time Products’ own sites where there will be clever gizmos allowing people to design their own watches with different dial colours and straps.

Change has been less dramatic on the product front. The Seksy sub-brand of Sekonda for young female customers has been axed, and a new £80 Sekonda smartwatch was quietly introduced for this season (demand has been off the scale, apparently), but mostly the job was bring order to a sprawling product line, focus on best sellers, and introduce product lifecycles so that freshness would replace older poorly-selling lines that were damaged by discounting and weighing on the brands’ perception more generally.

Sekonda’s Stay Connected smartwatches.

“We don’t want our brands discounted as much. We need to be better at forecasting demand and we have to set prices correctly,” argues Ms Forrestal.

Retailers benefit from this strategy because they are helped to turn stock more quickly (preserving cash) when there is accurate forecasting and supply is in balance with demand.

It helps with presentation as well, with Time Products partners encouraged to move away from crowding their windows with product. “We have new point of sale displays that organise watches into clear collection, which brings more clarity to customers,” Ms Forrestal suggests. There is such a thing as too much choice in behavioural economic studies.

Paul Clarke is modernising the marketing; accelerating a sluggish start for Time Products brands on social media while continuing with successful pre-Christmas TV campaigns and a bit of print. Interestingly, the company is focusing on TikTok and YouTube, but is not expecting to use Facebook or Twitter.

He shows WATCHPRO amusing new marketing ideas which he has assembled under a theme of “no time for nonsense”.

The campaign pokes fun at the venerable Swiss watch industry’s pointless obsessions with things like 300 metre water resistance (the mark of a true dive watch, but a depth that would crush a human to death).

Sekonda’s alternative take on water resistance? “It works in the bath”, Mr Clarke smiles.

There is a bit of a dig at Apple’s obsession with health and wellness for its smartwatch marketing. The alternative Sekonda watch is advertised as counting steps to the fridge or the distance to the fish and chip shop instead.

A year after the new team took over, sales are on the up, although it may be hard to discern whether growth is coming from the end of covid restrictions or the result of the changes. A bit of both, one assumes.

Ms Forrestal forecasts that travel retail will recover in 2022, independents will see sales back up to above 2019 levels and ecommerce will be sharply higher. She is less sure that the major multiples will spring back as quickly, but is opening up new sales channels like TV shopping to compensate.

There have certainly been no shortages of challenges and strong headwinds for the Time Products team, but what they have been given is time and resources from their owner and chairman. “We now have a new and dynamic management team in place in whom I have the utmost confidence,” he tells WATCHPRO. “We have also carried out a complete upgrade of both our computers and delivery possibilities, in order to give the trade an enhanced and flexible service.  Our new advertising and marketing concepts are both innovative and exiting, and I have every reason to feel that they will create further opportunities, both for us and our customers,” he adds.

“Even without the totally unforeseen arrival of Covid-19, radical changes had been taking place in our industry — in particular a complete rethink of distribution channels,” Mr Margulies continues. “We anticipated the need to adapt many of the long-established guidelines on how best to move forward. We also knew that we should keep our existing core principles with regard to quality, service and value to the end consumer. All this, together with our substantial cash reserves, led me to believe that we have a unique opportunity to further consolidate our position as leaders in our field,” he concludes.

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