By  on November 17, 2010

Omega is making a big commitment to the American market.

This week, the upscale Swiss watch brand will open nine stores across the country, with another 15 on tap by next spring. Right now, the company operates only one store in the U.S., on Fifth Avenue in New York, and there are 70 Omega-owned boutiques around the world.

“This is a big, big move in terms of investment,” said Stephen Urquhart, president. “But it shows that we believe in the U.S. The time is right for us to get a foothold here.”

On Thursday, Urquhart will host the grand opening of the company’s boutique in Chicago, on North Michigan Avenue. That will be followed by openings in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Scottsdale, Ariz., Nashville, White Plains, N.Y., Hackensack, N.J., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Urquhart said that by the end of 2011, when the company expects to have 30 stores in operation here, “America will be our biggest market for corporate retail.” Omega also has 120 franchised stores, but those are operated with partners, he said. South Coast Plaza, in Costa Mesa, Calif., will open next spring, and the company is looking for locations in Dallas, Houston and other urban areas.

“This is a new business for us,” he said of the corporate retail initiative, although it’s proving to be a successful one. The company opened its first store in Zurich 10 years ago and retail now accounts for around 20 percent of sales. Omega is part of the Swatch Group, which does not break out sales for individual brands. Comp-store sales at the retail stores rose 17 percent in 2009, Urquhart said, “which is a very good, positive sign.”

The stores will carry the company’s entire product range of men’s and women’s timepieces, including the best-selling Seamaster and Constellation collections. They will also carry the new Ladymatic line, which is using Nicole Kidman in its ads.

To promote the openings, the company is planning to employ traditional national and regional advertising, social media and store-opening events.

The stores average around 1,000 square feet, although Chicago is 1,400 square feet. Most will be in malls because “that’s how America shops,” Urquhart said, although a street-level location in San Francisco is preferred, and the Seattle store is in the Fairmont Hotel.

The U.S. retail operation is being overseen by Brice LeTroadec, who was a store manager in Geneva but who has relocated to New York. In addition to site selection, he is charged with finding and training the associates in the stores.

Although Omega is 160 years old and has sold its watches in the U.S. for more than 50 years, the brand “was not developed as well as it could be here,” Urquhart said. “So we realized the only way to get a foothold was to do it ourselves. A third party won’t commit financially or emotionally.”

Urquhart declined to say how much the retail rollout is costing the company, saying only that the first nine stores required “a seven-figure investment,” but he’s hopeful that they will break even within one to two years. “With some, it will happen quickly, but others will take longer,” he said. “We’re very patient and we know that retailing takes time.”

Although the focus is on company-owned retail, Urquhart said Omega will retain its wholesale distribution, which includes specialty stores and jewelry shops. “We will work in harmony with our retail partners,” he said.

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