PARIS — Times are getting even tougher for luxury timepiece-makers.
The decline in Swiss watch exports accelerated in March, echoing news from the luxury industry that trends are worsening. It was the ninth consecutive month the trade has been mired in negative territory.
Foreign sales of Swiss timepieces were down 16.1 percent in March to 1.5 billion Swiss francs, or $1.53 billion at average exchange, for the period, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry said Thursday.
This comes following a 3.3 percent decline in February and a 7.9 percent drop in January. They are the lowest March figures since 2011.
“The scale of the downturn is also unusual, since we must go back to the crisis of 2009 to find rates of variation of this order,” the federation said.
The month saw all categories and main markets softening, with overall volumes dropping 16.3 percent.
“[The] mood amongst watch retailers seems to have deteriorated in recent months reflecting subdued economic conditions, stock market and [foreign exchange] volatility, travel fears after several terrorist attacks in Europe and depressed oil prices,” Citi luxury analyst Thomas Chauvet wrote in a research note entitled “March Exports: As Bad as It Gets?”
“These are sell-in numbers and tend to exacerbate trends. It is in line with the most recent commentary by the luxury industry that trends are deteriorating,” added Barclays European luxury goods analysts Julian Easthope and Laura Levy in a note.
They called the export data “dismal again” and suggest a continued destocking. Barclays estimated the currency impact was marginally positive in March, with the organic decline at 16.2 percent.
On a regional basis, Hong Kong, the Swiss watch industry’s largest and most profitable market, registered one of its steepest downturns, with a 37.7 percent drop. The U.S. recorded a 32.9 percent erosion. Sales to China retreated 13.7 percent, undercutting the recovery that had begun there at the end of 2015. Japan was down 9.4 percent and Italy by 3.2 percent. Only Germany posted a gain, of 2.2 percent.
“Sell-in trends are clearly getting worse,” wrote Chauvet, who remained concerned about continued disruption in Hong Kong, volatile China-related news flow, demand slowdown in the U.S. and Europe, and possible impact of a depressed oil price on Russian and Middle Eastern demand.
“It is no longer offset by positive growth in Japan and some European markets, which were all in negative territory in March,” Chauvet wrote.
By segment, exports of watches costing 200 Swiss francs to 500 Swiss francs, or $204 to $509 — the price point most similar to the Apple Watch — fell 27.1 percent in both volume and value terms, the federation said. Timepieces in the range of less than 200 Swiss francs and more than 3,000 Swiss francs, or $3,055, declined 20 percent, and the value of watches between 500 Swiss francs and 3,000 Swiss francs contracted 7.1 percent.
Precious metal and steel watches particularly influenced the fall in value terms, while on a volume basis it was steel and the other materials category, which includes all non-metallic products.
Luxury makers have been forced to rethink strategies as BRIC countries have cooled, tourists are skittish and currencies remain volatile. Expectations for 2016 are modest — low single-digit organic growth, similar to that of last year.
As reported, Mario Ortelli, a Bernstein analyst, has projected that jewelry will be the fastest-growing category in 2016, followed by accessories, ready-to-wear, perfume and cosmetics. Watches are still likely to struggle.
Major category players Swatch Group and Compagnie Financière Richemont do not report first-quarter numbers; Swatch is to publish first-half results in July, and Richemont will release fourth-quarter sales to March on May 20.