Swiss are looking to revive luxury watch sales in U.S.

Walking into a jewelry store or high-end watch department can be an intimidating experience: The timepieces are under glass. The room is hushed. The security guard is staring at you.

No wonder so many Americans these days are shopping for luxury watches at wholesale clubs or on the Internet, where they can avoid stuffy attitudes, compare brands and maybe even find a lower price.

Watchmakers have come to terms with the fact that the wristwatch is no longer about telling time. Almost every American — 96%, to be exact — carries a mobile phone that always shows the time. But watchmakers aren’t ready to let generations of young consumers live without a watch.

Instead, the Swiss, the world’s largest producers of watches, are leading a campaign to revive the watch as a status symbol in the U.S., particularly among men, who make up the bulk of the market. Watch companies are rolling out their own branded stores, reinventing the way watches are sold and trying to halt the rise of discounting.


“We decided the best way to get into the U.S. market would be to make a strong statement,” said Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega, a division of Bienne, Switzerland-based Swatch Group, the world’s largest watchmaker. “To really tap the American market, the only way to do it is to open our own stores.”

Like most Swiss watchmakers, Omega has been selling its watches in the U.S. through jewelers and department stores for more than 100 years. But Omega didn’t operate its own stores, until recently. During the last year, the watchmaker has opened 16 Omega boutiques in the U.S. It opened its first store in New York in 2009 and has an additional nine stores set to open during the next nine months in the U.S.

Rolex and Tag Heuer, both Swiss companies, unveiled their first free-standing stores in the U.S. this year. Privately held Rolex debuted this spring in Chicago, New York and San Francisco, and three more stores are in the pipeline in the U.S. Tag Heuer set up shop in June in Las Vegas. The Rolex stores are operated by New York watch chain Tourneau, and Tag Heuer’s are run by luxury goods giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

At the same time, Tourneau, which operates 34 namesake stores in the U.S. in addition to the Rolex shops, debuted a new-format Tourneau flagship this summer in New York, aimed at attracting a new generation of watch wearers. The concept store touts counterless selling, akin to Apple stores, where sales associates stand alongside customers, instead of behind a counter.


“The Swiss are really trying to push the idea that in order to be well-dressed, you have to have a nice watch,” said Joseph Partington, owner of Forgotten Times, a watch store in Arlington Heights, Ill. “They realize that watches really aren’t important anymore. There’s no reason to have a watch to tell time. It basically has to tell status.”

The Swiss would like to convince Americans that watches are as cool as iPhones and iPads.

So far, most Americans are less interested in status watches than their European and Asian counterparts, experts said. Outside the U.S., men who aspire to higher positions use pricey watches as a calling card. In the U.S., men lean toward practical, sporty watches. Just check the wrists of some rich and famous men. There aren’t many $10,000 watches to be found.

President Obama wears a $350 Jorg Gray 6500 Chronometer. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner sports a $30 Timex Ironman. Comedian Conan O’Brien was spotted by celebrity watch blog sporting a Suunto Core Extreme Edition Red watch, typically less than $500. And tween heartthrob Justin Bieber wears a Casio G-Shock G-Lide, which sells for less than $100.


The troubled economy and stubbornly high jobless rate are damping the desire to show off fancy timepieces.

“In the U.S., successful people have an incredible car or house, but the timepiece hasn’t graduated to the level of must-have luxury good,” said Fred Levin, president and chief executive of LGI Network, a fine-watch market research firm in Randolph, N.J., and a division of NPD Group.

Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs sent the Twittersphere buzzing last fall when he floated the idea that the iPod Nano, a clip-on, matchbook-size music player, would make a good watch. The 56-year-old billionaire is usually bare-wristed when he appears in public.

The Swiss watch brands operate scores of stores in Europe and Asia. In the U.S., they have traditionally relied on jewelry stores and department stores to sell their wares.


The financial crisis changed the equation. Many department stores shut their watch departments. And thousands of jewelry stores, still the most common place to shop for a watch, went out of business.

“Traditional channels have faded,” said Pamela Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a luxury retail research firm in Stevens, Pa. “The jewelry stores were closing.”

In 2008, the U.S. fell from its perch as the biggest watch market in the world, a position it had held for a decade. Hong Kong now ranks as the largest consumer market for watches, importing $7.4 billion worth in 2010, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. The U.S. ranked No. 2, with imports totaling $3.7 billion.

The U.S. watch market is rebounding, but not as quickly as in the rest of the world. Global watch production rose 22% in 2010 after a 15-month downturn, driven in large part by new wealth in China and Hong Kong, according to the federation. Sales of Swiss watches to Asia rose 35% in 2010, and U.S. watch sales gained only 14% during the same time frame, the industry group said.


“If you’re going to spend $5,000 on a watch, you should have a great experience,” said Jim Seuss, CEO of Tourneau, which sells dozens of luxury watch brands, including its namesake, Breitling and Dior. “It should be something memorable. If you think about what a great experience you have in going into an Apple store, we want to bring the same kind of experience to the world of watches.”