Vintage Omega Seamaster 300 from 1957

As watchmakers seek to bolster their standing in the midst of ongoing tough conditions, a growing number of brands are exploring the secondhand market and using servicing offers on older watches to strengthen ties with customers.

In the past, many firms were concerned that involvement in the business of used timepieces would wear away the exclusive aura of a brand or eat into sales of new watches. But the industry’s prolonged slump has eliminated such worries. With forecasts for tepid growth for the foreseeable future, with observers predicting sales increases in the low single digits, watchmakers are on the hunt for fresh ways to engage with potential clients.

Many are turning to the past, not just remaking models from the archives but also dabbling in pre-owned and vintage watches as a channel for promoting their brands.

“Until today, luxury watchmakers have abstained themselves from the secondhand trade, with the fear of diluting the exclusivity of their brands or cannibalizing their sales,” said analysts at Bernstein in a research note.

The analysts noticed renewed interest in the pre-owned market at Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie at the start of the year in Geneva, where Audemars Piguet signaled its intent to explore selling secondhand pieces in a shop in Switzerland.

Omega jumped into the conversation last week showcasing its vintage boutique, operated in a partnership with antiques dealer George Somlo, in the historic Burlington Arcade in London, at an annual presentation for its parent company Swatch Group. While the store opened a decade ago, executives hinted at further developments in this area.

Interest in pre-owned watches is “a real passion and inspiration…that’s why we have a lot of plans and that’s why also our business is growing,” said Omega chief executive officer and president Raynald Aeschlimann, who said to expect “lots of news and new partners” on this front.

“There is a lot of talk lately about pre-owned watches…it’s what makes Omega different from our competitors in terms of being close to customers,” Aeschlimann said, as he detailed the label’s efforts.

In addition to the store’s six staff members, which include a full-time Omega vintage watchmaker who has been in the business for two decades, the company employs over a dozen people in its Swiss headquarters in Biel to service vintage watches.

The company issues certificates listing details about the watches they service as well as two-year guarantees following restoration, providing a service that Aeschlimann bills as “unique in the industry in our price segment.”

Keen to take the vintage appeal to younger clients, Omega took the step earlier this month of opening a pop-up store in Paris, selling only straps in different colors and with options to personalize them with lettering.

“This is something that makes the difference between just a little pre-owned watch and a watch that looks like yours,” said Aeschlimann, who acknowledged the influence of younger generations in the new store idea.

“Millennials have an effect on all of us,” he noted.

Swatch Group president Nick Hayek pointed out that Omega, which was hosting the group’s annual results presentation while its new headquarters were under construction, was not the only one in the large stable of Swatch brands to dabble in the market for pre-owned watches.

“Omega is our host here, so we have to give the word to Omega, but I could have given it to Breguet or to Blancpain also. So he showed just an example, not just as a unique Omega feature,” Nick Hayek said, referring to Aeschlimann as he also noted the resurgence of interest in used watches.

As part of a broader push to deepen ties with clients, Cartier has also highlighted its servicing of watches, in a slightly different fashion.

“We are really going through a fundamental client and data transformation; we are approaching clients differently….[and] introducing new services at Cartier,” said Arnaud Carrez, international marketing and communications director for the Compagnie Financière Richemont-owned label. To mark the launch of a new Panthère watch model last year, the company dusted off client lists from the Eighties, inviting people to Cartier stores with an offer of free servicing of their timepieces.

Carrez said the initiative was new in the industry and served to promote the appeal for Cartier products over time.

“It is also the notion of permanence at Cartier; the Cartier object is beautiful whatever its age,” said Carrez.

“It’s not because you don’t have the new Panthère that your product doesn’t look nice — it is as nice as the new one,” he added.

Offering free battery changes and polishing the pieces helped provide tangible elements to convey the message as well as incite people to start wearing a model again, he added.

The effort also allowed the label to reconnect with clients who hadn’t visited a store in a while and update their information by obtaining email addresses, for example.

At a pop-up store in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood in Paris in December, visitors were encouraged to have their photo taken in a photo booth. Photos were projected from a framed screen on a wall in a living room setting, placing the visitors’ headshots among photos of famous celebrities like Catherine Deneuve. The photo booth activity also served to gather data, with visitors entering email addresses to get a copy of the photo.

Speaking about Omega’s involvement with pre-owned watches, Aeschlimann offered: “It’s much more than data, it’s the way of getting into the customer relationship and we do cherish that very much.”

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