Wave of the Future

The Coronavirus Is Forcing Swiss Watch Companies to Sell Online. And That’s a Good Thing


April 4, 2020 Watches By Photo by Hunter Kelley
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Buying a prestigious watchmaking masterpiece isn’t supposed to be simply a cash-for-goods transaction: it’s often an involved experience that’s meant to feel special. There are silk gloves, possibly offers of champagne, and the air smells almost…expensive. High-end brands with carefully guarded reputations are wrapped up in this sort of ceremony, and they’ve been reluctant to join the Add-to-Cart age of immediacy.

This model has worked well for many historic brands that have remained digitally aloof — at least, that is, until a global pandemic shut everything down and shut everyone in. Now, most shopping and just about everything else is taking place online, with only essential businesses remaining open and residents requested or ordered to stay in their homes in many parts of the world. That leaves brick-and-mortar holdouts such as Patek Philippe and other titans of the watch industry in a tough spot.

But extreme circumstances call for extreme measures. Now, the brand is taking action and finally adapting — no, not by offering e-commerce of its own, but by allowing its authorized dealers to sell its exclusive watches on the World Wide Web. And no brand represents the world of high-end watchmaking with its carefully crafted branding and air of rarity quite like Patek Philippe.

The company says that the measures are temporary and meant to support its retailers in a time when many such businesses that rely on physical locations are suffering. Another Swiss haute horlogerie company, H. Moser & Cie, has gone a step further with a “Shop Now” button on their website for actual e-commerce. Could all this signal a thawing of Swiss attitudes toward e-commerce? Would that even be desirable?

Forces have been pushing companies in this direction already, and many Swiss luxury brands at the entry- and mid-levels already offer online “stores.” You’ve been able to buy Omega watches with the click of a button since late 2017 — hell, you could order one from your iPhone in an Uber on the way home the bar, several tequilas deep. This certainly makes sales easy and convenient — but buying a Patek Philippe or Vacheron Constantin watch isn’t supposed to be “easy.”

Patek’s watches start at around $20,000, featuring old-world craftsmanship and almost exclusively precious-metal cases. Isn’t that the kind of purchase for which you should at least be required to stand up and get dressed? That wouldn’t be an unreasonable position, but at least the option of buying online is clearly the future, and watch companies that fight against it can feel out of touch. The challenge will be to use technology creatively to offer that catered, boutique experience in other ways.

The coronavirus pandemic has precipitated a moment of major adaptation for just about every industry and every individual in the world. That’s always a learning experience, and it might just be what’s needed to break old habits and antiquated practices.

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Zen Love

Zen Love is Gear Patrol’s watch writer. He avoids the snooty side of the watch world, and seeks out food in NYC that resembles what he loved while living in Asia for over a decade.

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