Watch Boutiques Blossom in the Digital Age

Online sales continue to be a focus, but brands are having a hard time finding enough days for all their ribbon cuttings.

In 2017, when Georges Kern became chief executive of Breitling, the Swiss watch brand had just seven boutiques in North America, most located in the obvious places: New York City, Miami, Toronto and the like.

By the end of this year, the brand expects to have 43 boutiques across the continent — more than half of which opened in the past two years, including locations in New Orleans, Salt Lake City and Laval, a suburb of Montreal.

Breitling’s store-opening spree, however, has not been limited to North America. By the end of 2024, the goal is to have 350 boutiques around the world, up from 56 in 2017 — including recently opened stores in Hanoi, Vietnam; Hyderabad, India; and Sapporo, Japan.

“With Covid, we saw a new phenomenon: the localization of consumption,” Mr. Kern said during a video call in late July from Manhattan, where he was checking on one of Breitling’s newest stores, in the meatpacking district.

“People stayed at home and discovered they could actually buy everything in their hometown,” he added, referring to a combination of online and in-store sales and services like curbside pickup. “Why would you ask people to fly or drive to a city to buy a watch? No, we have to come to see the customer.”

Mr. Kern is far from the only chief executive in the Swiss watch industry to see the value in brick and mortar. In the middle of 2020, when it seemed as if the future of luxury was digital, most high-end watch brands put their physical retail plans on hold. Three years later, many have doubled and even tripled down on their commitments to the in-store experience.

Consider just a few of the watch retailers that have opened since May: the world’s largest Jacob & Co., a 2,368-square-foot store on Olaya Street in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; the 2,174-square-foot Casa Panerai, Panerai’s largest flagship, on Madison Avenue in New York City; and the renovated Bucherer 1888 TimeDome on the Las Vegas Strip, which, at nearly 19,000 square feet, is one of the largest watch and jewelry stores in the United States, offering a multibrand selection that includes Cartier, Rolex and Grand Seiko.

Casa Panerai, the brand’s largest flagship, on Madison Avenue.Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

(If a recent surprise announcement by Rolex is any indication, the selection at Bucherer may soon feature even more Rolex timepieces. Late last month, the watch brand announced its plan to acquire the Swiss retailer, with whom it has done business since 1924, citing a decision by its chairman, Jörg G. Bucherer, to sell the company.)

This fall and the early months of 2024 promise to bring even more expansion. Citizen, for example, recently announced it is planning to open a three-level, 7,000-square-foot flagship near Rockefeller Center in Manhattan in December that will showcase its timepieces alongside its sibling brands Bulova, Frederique Constant, Accutron and Alpina.

“We want the consumer to have this immersive experience,” Jeffrey Cohen, president of Citizen Watch Co. of America, said.

David Hurley, the New York-based deputy chief executive of the Watches of Switzerland Group, headquartered in Leicester, England, said competition for the best and biggest retail locations had reached a fever pitch. (Indeed, in late July, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s largest luxury group by both brands and sales, reported its results for the first half of 2023: Operating investments ballooned to 3.6 billion euros, about $3.9 billion, during the period, including €1.5 billion spent on commercial real estate.)

“If you look at the best malls around the U.S., you’ve got the major luxury groups, particularly LVMH and Kering, where it’s almost like a land grab out there,” Mr. Hurley said. “If they’ve got stores that are 5,000 square feet, they’re looking to expand them to 15,000 square feet.”

He cited an example from his own company’s retail playbook: In late 2018, Watches of Switzerland opened its first multibrand store in the United States, in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, followed in March 2019 by a second in the Hudson Yards retail complex. Come January, the company is planning a third city location at One Vanderbilt, a 93-story skyscraper on 42nd Street, next to Grand Central Terminal.

“When we opened SoHo and Hudson Yards, there weren’t many people opening or expanding their watch locations,” Mr. Hurley said. “We were confident in the investment, but I didn’t think we’d be looking at ourselves a couple years later with Hudson Yards at 6,500 square feet and SoHo at over 8,000, going, ‘Wow, I wish we had bigger stores.’ And that’s why we’re opening up another location in New York — because it’s either that or elastic walls.”

Hublot opened a store in the heart of Vienna in June.Hublot

Demand for luxury timepieces surged during the pandemic, when watch lovers, bored at home and flush with stimulus cash, began buying up available inventory and fueling much of today’s retail expansion.

But watchmakers’ real estate ambitions go back more than a decade, to the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when many brands decided to cut wholesale distribution in favor of opening their own shops — some operated directly by the brand and others in partnership with local multibrand retailers, said Andrew Block, president and chief executive of the luxury consultancy Second Time Partners, in New York City.

“Monobrand boutiques are a way for a brand to control its image and supply,” Mr. Block said.

Lately, brands have begun to cluster in promising locations, such as the Mall at Short Hills in Millburn, N.J., he said.

“A year or two ago, Short Hills only had four watch and jewelry retail stores, one of which closed,” Mr. Block said. “Then London Jewelers opened a Rolex store, then a London Jewelers store, then a Patek Philippe boutique. Next door is an Omega boutique operated by Omega. Downstairs, you have Tiffany & Company.”

“There’s a Breitling store operated by Watches of Switzerland, a Panerai boutique by London and an IWC store operated by IWC,” Mr. Block added. “To the consumer, it’s a bonanza.” (The Panerai store is scheduled to open Oct. 10.)

Ira Melnitsky, president of Bucherer USA, which has rebranded the two stores in California and three in Hawaii that it purchased over the past five years, said the U.S. market has vast amounts of untapped potential. “As much as we’ve grown over the past five years, we’re expecting just as much in the next five years,” he said. (In 2022, the United States accounted for 15.7 percent of Swiss watch exports, making it far and away the industry’s No. 1 export market.)

Plenty of watchmakers would say the same about Europe, Asia and the Middle East. On June 28, Chopard opened a boutique in Shanghai. The next day, Hublot opened a store in Vienna.

Zenith followed suit on July 5 with a new boutique on Cyprus, “which is becoming a hot spot in Europe,” Julien Tornare, the brand’s chief executive, said on a call that month during which he mentioned Zenith’s new store in Riyadh and another scheduled to open in November in Bangkok.

Saudi Arabia and Southeast Asia are two of the luxury watch world’s most alluring destinations at the moment. “There’s wealth everywhere,” Mr. Kern of Breitling said. “I always say where there are no offers, there’s no demand. So let’s create some.”

Despite their modest production volume compared with that of corporate brands, independent watchmakers are equally focused on opening physical stores.

In July, Edouard Meylan, the chief executive of H. Moser & Cie, an independent brand based in the Swiss city of Schaffhausen, had just returned from Hong Kong and Shanghai, where he had overseen the official openings of the brand’s first two flagship stores. “Digital was the big thing for quite some time, but you need brand temples, where people feel and understand the universe of the brand,” he said on a call from the brand’s headquarters.

An Audemars Piguet lounge in Milan.Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

In parallel with its boutique strategy, H. Moser also is experimenting with a lounge concept similar to what the prestige maker Audemars Piguet introduced in 2017, when it opened its first AP House, in Milan. Designed to look more like homes than retail stores, the spaces — dubbed Moserland by the brand — will welcome clients in an atmosphere that the brand said will prioritize hospitality over transactions. The first is scheduled to open next month in New York City, near Times Square.

“Over the last few years, we’ve had people coming to our offices to pick up watches,” Mr. Meylan said. “Why don’t we create a more customer-friendly environment?

“In New York, we have a deck and a bar and we can organize some nice events,” he added. “People can smoke a cigar, have a whisky, spend time with my brother and myself. There are no security issues.”

Boon Chong Soon, vice president of the Swiss watchmaker Corum, had something similar in mind for the brand’s first concept store, the Corum Watch Club, which opened in Bangkok in May. The private space is on an upper level at the Gaysorn Shopping Center in the city’s Ratchaprasong district.

“We are trying to create a sort of AP House,” Mr. Soon said. “People can come in, have a coffee, design their own watch. We’ll have a designer in the store itself who can, at the request of the client, start doing a design. How many brands can actually give you that experience?”

Soon, more than ever. Even niche brands such as Massena LAB, a New York-based watchmaker that collaborates with other brands to produce limited-edition timepieces, recently announced its new retail concept, Massena House, which it intends to open within the next year or so in New York City.

William Rohr, the brand’s founder, who is best known in the watch world by his pseudonym, William Massena, said the motivation to open a private, club-like space was twofold. “What came out of Covid is the fact that watch collecting is about building communities, and to a certain extent those communities need to meet,” Mr. Massena said.

The second, and perhaps more persuasive, reason — at least from Mr. Massena’s perspective — has to do with Massena LAB’s persistent lack of inventory, a reflection of demand for its limited-edition models.

“How do you receive a client when you don’t have any watches?” Mr. Massena said. “You need to entertain them. You create more of a club. Massena House wants to emulate Soho House for watches.”

The bigger brands are also catching on. In the next six months, Ulysse Nardin is planning to open a boutique in the United States, a store on the West Coast, said Patrick Pruniaux, the brand’s chief executive.

“I was never skeptical of selling watches online,” he said, “but what I believe above all else is that people want to understand the story behind the brand, and they want a staff that can explain the story.”

Mr. Pruniaux paused for a moment. “Do I sound like an 80-year-old C.E.O.?” he asked, laughing.


Leave a Comment

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .