LONDON — Five years ago, Watches of Switzerland spotted an opportunity in the U.S., and snatched it with both hands, opening multi- and mono-brand stores for brands and snapping up local retailers including Mayors and, later, the vintage and preowned watch platform Analog Shift.
Well before WoS began its aggressive rollout in the U.S., it could see that demand was robust: watch aficionado communities were flourishing online, and local landlords and department stores were asking the group to open Stateside.
WoS was also confident that its multibrand offer, in particular, would appeal to a broad audience ranging from the high-end collector to families buying birthday or graduation gifts for their children.
“There has always been a great appreciation of luxury watches in America which, honestly, retail in America wasn’t fully responding to. There wasn’t the level of investment that the market really deserved,” said Brian Duffy, chief executive officer of Watches of Switzerland, which on Monday revealed a series of management changes to reflect the growing power of the U.S. market.
David Hurley, executive vice president, U.S., has been promoted to president, North America, and deputy CEO of the group. Craig Bolton, executive director U.K., has been named president, Watches of Switzerland Group, U.K. and Europe.
Chabi Nouri, formerly president and CEO of Piaget, will join the WoS board as an independent non-executive director and a member of the company’s ESG committee. Nouri is a private equity partner of Mirabaud and cofund manager of the Mirabaud Lifestyle franchise.
Duffy said the pandemic accelerated the development of a robust market that already appreciated the value of a luxury watch.
“Everybody knows what watch JFK [John F. Kennedy] wore, what [Dwight D.] Eisenhower wore,” said Duffy in a joint interview with Hurley. “The gold watch, the luxury watch, has always played a big part in the American appreciation of value and accomplishment, so we were very confident that if we did our thing and invested in big, beautiful retail stores, and great marketing, we could reach out and touch that demand.”
He added that the emotional pull of a luxury watch cannot be underestimated. The American customer values heritage, provenance, the story behind a watch, and the artisanal skill that went into making it.
WoS is the U.K.’s largest retailer for Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier, Omega, Tag Heuer and Breitling. It also owns the premium luxury British jewelers Goldsmiths and Mappin & Webb. In 2017, it began expanding rapidly in the U.S. with the purchase of the Mayors watches and jewelry stores.
Today, the U.S. is the group’s fastest-moving market and is notching growth of more than 40 percent. By the end of the 2025 calendar year, the U.S. market will be the same size as Watches of Switzerland’s home market of the U.K., according to Duffy.
In the third fiscal quarter ended Jan. 30, WoS group revenue was up nearly 28 percent to 348.1 million pounds year-over-year in constant currency. In the same period, U.S. revenue was up 44.6 percent to 124.6 million pounds year-over-year.
Duffy said the WoS approach to retail is democratic.
“We are of the conviction that everybody wants a watch,” he said, adding that the strategy has been to roll out “big, beautiful stores” and market them well, he said, adding: “Our approach is very open, democratic, and we have a nonjudgmental tone of voice. A lot of the traditional industry has been somewhat elitist, focused on, and maybe selling to, the same people over and over again. We have a much, much broader appeal, to women and younger consumers.”
The watch brands themselves are witnessing similar trends in the U.S. During the “Challenges & Opportunities of 2022” panel at Watches and Wonders Geneva, Ulysse Nardin’s CEO Patrick Pruniaux said there has been a clear “step-up” in the customer experience at watch retailers across the U.S., with brands’ and retailers’ significant investments paying off.
Money, Pruniaux said, has gone into high-profile locations, training, and investment in staff. “Americans have been buying luxury watches for a while, but now they’re doing it on a completely new scale. Business in America is very, very dynamic, and that is great news for the industry.”
Since it landed in the U.S. in 2017, WoS has been on a building, buying and refurbishing streak.
It first purchased the Mayors chain of stores, and last year it snapped up the Greenwich, Conn., Vail and Aspen, Colo., stores belonging to the family-owned watch and jewelry retailer Betteridge. It has also purchased other third-party watch retailers with existing locations at Mall of America and in Plano, Tex.
In the meantime, WoS has been opening stores and refurbishing others: It recently opened its first Bulgari boutique in the U.S., adjacent to the refurbished Mayors in Aventura, Fla. It has also expanded its mono-brand boutique channel and opened a Watches of Switzerland store in Cincinnati.
According to Hurley, a new suite of stores is set to open starting with the company’s new fiscal year in May. Multibrand and mono-brand stores will open in cities including Atlanta, Boston, and the American Dream mall in New Jersey.
WoS has also opened a showroom on 57th Street in New York City for Analogue Shift, and has been rolling out shops-in-shop for the brand across its store network. Hurley said there has been “great demand for vintage, and preowned has always been a big part of the U.S. market. We’re putting our group resources behind it.”
Asked about the trends they’ve been seeing in the U.S. market, Duffy and Hurley said consumers value sustainability, and longevity and have an interest in components and materials that are, or can be, recycled.
Duffy said gold has been making a strong comeback, in particular yellow gold.
“There’s been a migration from all steel, to steel and gold, to all gold,” said Duffy, adding that the average price has gone up for all of the brands.
Hurley said there’s been strength across all brands, and in the U.S. market he’s been seeing collectors getting interested in independent brands such as MB&F and H. Moser & Cie.
“People are starting to have a wider appreciation beyond just three or four of the best-known brands out there,” said Hurley. “A lot of that comes down to the younger consumers and being able to advertise and reach them online.”
He said the U.K. online business is already about $100 million, while the U.S. online business is just getting started. Hurley added that online has been a big driver of sales online and offline as well, driving people into stores.
The Watches of Switzerland Group has more than 170 stores across the U.K. and the U.S., including 51 dedicated mono-brand boutiques in partnership with Rolex, Tag Heuer, Breitling, Omega, Tudor, Audemars Piguet, Grand Seiko, Bulgari and Fope.
WoS also has units at Heathrow Airport in Terminals 2, 3, 4 and 5 as well as seven retail websites.
Mappin & Webb holds royal warrants for goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewelers, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charle and more. The Mappin & Webb master jeweler has been Crown Jeweler, custodian of the British Crown Jewels, since 2012.