By  on March 18, 2010

For many watch brands, the time is right to take retail matters into their own hands.

After taking a beating at retail the last couple of years and seeing consumer indulgence turn to thrift, timepiece firms are focusing on opening, expanding or multiplying their proprietary flagships. The monobrand stores and in-store shops are not intended to eliminate their retail partners from the equation, but rather to improve ways to reach the consumer and entice them with their full product array under their distinct image.

Firms such as David Yurman and Audemars Piguet have been bolstering and renovating their boutiques, while smaller companies like Hublot, Girard-Perregaux, F.P. Journe and TechnoMarine have opened stores on their own or through franchise partners.

“When you own your own store, it’s a laboratory,” said Andrew Jassin, managing director of Jassin Consulting. “In order to protect brand integrity, [brands] need to have a store as an advertisement, to reflect their marketing efforts. It’s a distribution they can control.”

Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of the retail leasing, marketing and sales division of Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate, said watches are a big focus on New York’s Madison Avenue, which she calls the “Jewel Coast” because of the proliferation of jewelry and watch stores that stretch from East 60th to 72nd Streets. Consolo said rents in that neighborhood are discounted from 15 to 20 percent and go from $800 to $900 a square foot. In early 2008, rents skyrocketed as high as $1,300 a square foot.

“There are some very attractive deals,” said Consolo, who added that Richard Mille is looking for a space, as is Vacheron Constantin.

Top-tier brands are opening across Asia in locales such as Hong Kong and Malaysia. While stores in the U.S. might be more of a marketing exercise than a sales push, stores in China are particularly geared to move product.

“The Chinese are very brand conscious,” added Jassin. “The level of interest in watches is incredible and it continues to grow.”

In 2009, David Yurman brought four shops to Asia and there are plans for more, including one in Macau. This year, the watch and jewelry firm rolled out a 1,000-square-foot in-store shop at Bloomingdale’s 59th Street flagship, and there are plans for an in-store shop with Saks Fifth Avenue in New York in April. This month, Yurman opened a 400-square-foot in-store boutique at Printemps in Paris, in addition to one in Moscow retailer Tsum. A London shop is in the works.

Yurman is also set to open its largest and most high-profile store, a multistory flagship on Madison Avenue, next month. This growth is on top of Yurman’s distribution in key doors across North America and the Caribbean, including Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and Saks, as well as in 15 freestanding signature stores.

Hublot, which is making a push to promote women’s watches this year in addition to the firm’s thriving men’s watch business, plans to open its first stores in the U.S. A unit in Boca Raton, Fla., is up first this spring, with New York and Los Angeles also on the docket. Architect Peter Marino is designing the Hublot stores.

“Our commitment to the U.S. market is clear also from the retail investment we are making and the wholesale partnerships we are reinforcing in 2010,” Jean-Claude Biver, chief executive officer of Hublot, said last month.

Hublot also is opening a second store in Paris in the Place Vendôme, as well as in Shanghai, Beijing, Dubai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Berlin, Munich and the south of France.

Late last year, 11-year-old firm F.P. Journe opened its first U.S. store on Madison Avenue. It is the firm’s sixth signature store worldwide. Others are located in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Geneva, Paris and Beijing.

“We wanted to offer our clients an exclusive environment and a service to match our philosophy and work ethics,” said François-Paul Journe of the mission of the store network.

The firm produces only 900 watches each year.

“Instead of being present in a multitude of locations with a small quantity of watches, the boutiques [of] F.P. Journe display a complete collection introduced by experts in horology and trained by the brand,” he said. “[The boutiques] display a very strong image of the brand that is very profitable for everyone.”

Audemars Piguet, the 135-year-old watch firm, tripled the size of its 57th Street store in Manhattan in October by moving across the street. The 3,000-square-foot unit is a new design for Piguet, with a women’s salon and wenge wood details, cream and golden sand walls, blown-glass chandeliers and sumptuous seating areas for lounging about while contemplating, say, a $55,000 watch. The boutique is one of two U.S. stores for the brand. The other is located in Bal Harbour, Fla.

François-Henry Bennahmias, president and ceo of Audemars Piguet, said the goal of the design is to provide an oasis amid the frenetic environment that is Midtown Manhattan.

“We pushed the design envelope,” Bennahmias told WWD at the time. “We wanted it to have a warm feeling and to be comfortable. Our other store was very masculine. This is more laid-back, easy.”

Mary Leach, chief marketing officer of Movado Group Inc., said the brand’s stores allow for testing new products, therefore increasing sales in the wholesale network.

“Each of our boutiques acts as a three-dimensional billboard of what the Movado brand represents. It allows us to test new products and communications,” said Leach, who noted the firm is testing out the new jewelry collection in the boutiques. “It also allows us to showcase the brand image at the point of sale. We can then go to our wholesale customers with proven success stories, meaning less risk to them. In today’s world, less risk is a good thing.”

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