Watch Brands Rush to Digital Channels

PARIS — Luxury watch labels may have only recently shrugged off their reticence about digital channels, but the recent converts will be bulking up their online firepower with extra enthusiasm in the coming months. Last year saw the move of traditional industry trade show events to online avenues, as well as sales to consumers — marking an important shift and offering a lifeline to a sector that entered the crisis already weakened by competition from the Apple Watch.

“For watches, COVID-19 amplified the already critical secular consumption pattern shifts from the category,” said analysts at Bain & Co. in their most recent luxury sector report. Along with apparel, the category was one of the worst performing of high-end products, with a 30 percent drop in business last year.

As for the rest of the luxury sector, demand from China has emerged as the key market for watchmakers, helping the sector improve its performance toward the end of the year. Exports of Swiss timepieces were down only 3.2 percent in November, according to figures from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, thanks to robust activity in mainland China.

Racing to meet demand from digitally savvy Chinese consumers, European watch labels are working to improve their offerings for online commerce. Early last year, Cartier joined Tmall’s Luxury Pavilion, an important move in the hard luxury sector, launching a Santos-Dumont watch model on the platform and offering special deliveries with its red-suited bellboys.

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When traditional industry trade shows were called off — the long-planned physical gatherings of hundreds of people in sprawling exposition halls were canceled by local authorities concerned about the spread of the coronavirus — Watches & Wonders took a handful of labels to Shanghai, including Panerai and Vacheron Constantin, in September.

This year, Watches & Wonders Geneva, formerly known as SIHH, has been scheduled to take place on April 7 to 13, strictly online. Originally set to take place in the Palexpo halls, the plans were ditched in November, replaced by a pledge to upgrade the digital platform that had been quickly set up when last year’s event was canceled. Dozens of brands have signed up for the online presentations, including many from Compagnie Financière Richemont such as Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre, but also Hermès and Kering labels Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux, as well as a roster of former Baselworld exhibitors, including Chanel, Chopard and Rolex. Baselworld, meanwhile, did not survive the defection of industry heavyweights last year — a final blow, after Swatch brands left in 2018. Its owner, MCH Group launched a new platform called HourUniverse for watches, jewelry and gemstone industries after settling with departing labels in May.

Some of the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton labels that took their launches to Dubai at the start of last year — Bulgari, Zenith and Hublot — are holding online presentations in the coming weeks, kicking off on Jan. 25.

Last summer, Geneva Watch Days cropped up, a new industry event regrouping a handful of labels including Bulgari, Breitling, Ulysse Nardin and Girard-Perregaux eager to hold small, physical meetings. While executives touted the event’s success, plans for a repeat of the event have not yet been made official.

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