Watches from Crown and Caliber’s Watchtoberfest

The clock is ticking. The Internet, once thought of as a back-alley resource for luxury mechanical timepieces, now has a mix of e-commerce players leading a new charge, with watch brands taking notice.

“The luxury watch brands are playing catch-up,” argued NPD Group’s executive director and industry analyst of watches and luxury Reginald Brack. “Watch executives have been wondering, ‘Will a customer buy something that is $10K and up, online? The answer is yes, and we’ve seen it in the pre-owned watch market.”

Euromonitor International, a market research provider, estimates luxury timepiece sales online in the U.S. market alone were $580.6 million in 2018, up $126.7 million from 2013.

Until the past few years, the timepiece sector online was populated by a host of “gray-market” channels like eBay or Craigslist, but new e-commerce sites are aiming to shake up the market with authenticated pre-owned, vintage and sometimes new luxury watch assortments.

“We source all our watches from individuals” said Hamilton Powell, chief executive officer and founder of the Atlanta-based watch e-tailer Crown & Caliber, which specializes in pre-owned luxury watches. According to Powell, there are an estimated $125 billion of Swiss mechanical watches — in people’s closets, on their wrists or in bank vaults — in the U.S. alone.

Powell began the site after leaving a career in private equity and now Crown & Caliber has 53 full-time employees. Crown & Caliber uses an in-house team that gauges real-time market data on sales to authenticate, service and ultimately price every watch it sells. Rather than consign their watches, customers sell them outright to the site through an online portal where they receive a sell quote in one to two business days.

Watch purchases at Crown & Caliber average $4,500, with marquee brands like Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer and Cartier being the most popular sold. The site has done more than 50,000 transactions since launching its e-commerce in 2016 and saw its revenue gross rate up 165 percent for 2018.

“It is possible to create a luxury experience online,” Powell said, noting his site has a net promoter score consistently landing in the mid-80s. Powell equates the evolution of online shopping in the watch space being attributed to “pricing transparency, pre-owned legitimacy and online comfort.”

The ceo recently expanded into new business by partnering with retailers Jared, Little Switzerland and the Birks Group to power their watch trade-in programs. Linked through the native web site of the retailer, the program makes two offers, first an outright cash offer, or a 20 percent higher offer in the form of a gift card for the retail partner. “It’s a way to for us to get more watches, retailers get more business and customers get even more for their watch,” he said.

“In America, it’s become the way people are used to shopping, you can buy your jewelry, your groceries and your car online, why not a luxury watch?” said Eneuri Acosta, chief operating officer of Hodinkee.

The Hodinkee site began in 2008 as a watch enthusiasts’ blog and has evolved into a multimedia channel with podcasts and editorial content around the world of horology. The group launched a retail arm, Hodinkee shop, a little over two years ago, and now caters to customers looking for vintage — defined as timepieces from the Eighties and earlier with a special desirability and story outside of the traditional pre-owned category — and new modern watches. The e-tailer is the authorized online retailer for several luxury brands.

Acosta said Hodinkee.com’s e-shop averages one million page views a month, with 40 percent of the traffic directly from hodinkee.com; less than 5 percent comes through traditional marketing, with the rest coming from social media channels. While the company employs a drop-ship style model with vintage pieces, usually selling out in less than 24 hours, Acosta said in 2018 modern watches drove 40 percent of the overall growth for the site, with the average sale for new watches landing at $4,500.

E-tailers gaining market share has luxury watch houses, many Swiss, taking notice but, according to Brack, “buying luxury watches direct-to-consumer, from the brands themselves, is still in its infancy.” He pointed to Audemars Piguet as a recent test case, in which the luxury brand partnered with China’s JD.com on an online pop-up shop selling high-end watches through its WeChat channel. Another example is Compagnie Financière Richemont, which sells a mix of new and vintage watches on its Net-a-porter and Mr. Porter sites, and recently acquired U.K.-based Watchfinder.com, an omnichannel retailer that deals in the pre-owned market.

“For so long, the watch brands have been relying on wholesale partners, which added an extra layer, but with direct-to-consumer, the brands get to build a direct relationship,” Brack said, adding, “Brands will be able to stay with the consumer, whether buying a pre-owned or new. It’s really a way to better connect to their consumer.”