Who Buys all Those Swiss Watches?
When I started my professional journey in the Swiss watch industry in the Spring of 1991, I never gave a second thought to who buys all those Swiss watches? As an International Product Manager of TISSOT, it soon became a key focus of my time. I joined the industry in a period that was both fascinating and challenging. It would eventually allow me to be part of the opening of key markets in Asia, including China and the Middle East.
Reopening The Global Market
Writing this retrospective on the Swiss watch industry has provided several new insights into the pivotal 1990s. In particular, I realized the global sales approach of TISSOT and SMH, the SWATCH Group’s predecessor, was not unique but rather a strategic move followed by the industry. The quartz crisis of the 1970s had fast-tracked the industry to disaster, and following that moment of crisis, the Swiss began to restructure.
The industry reorganized production around standardization, including development, manufacture, testing, industry knowledge, and education. The industry that emerged at the end of the 1980s began working on critical competencies such as a global approach to marketing and sales, curating their brand image more carefully, and creating thoughtful marketing initiatives. Crucially though, more focus was placed on mechanical movements.
Who Were The Buyers?
In the 1990s, the Swiss watch industry’s largest markets, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, grew slowly. Sales to the USA, Hong Kong, and Japan, on the other hand, were increasing rapidly, and by the middle of the decade, Hong Kong and the USA were the largest markets for Swiss Watches.
According to the Swiss export figures published by the Federation of The Swiss Watch Industry, the USA became the single largest market in 1998, leapfrogging Hong Kong for the title. In the Far East, the three largest markets were Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore; commanded approximately one-third of the global market. There was no direct export into China.
Following the collapse of sales to the Middle East due to the Desert Storm War from 1990 to 1991, The Middle East region grew its share of global sales to more than 9% of Swiss watch exports by 2019. The United Arab Emirates was the most prolific purchaser increasing their purchases eightfold by value during the three decades from 1990 to 2020.
Following The Path
In 1992, TISSOT set high sales targets that we could not achieve with organic growth alone. The most promising solution seemed to enlarge distribution and increase our sales channels into APEC and the Middle East regions. Tissot positioned itself as the entry-level brand for Swiss Made watches. The aim was that the brand should benefit from the growing middle class in many of these countries.
RADO had been extremely strong in the Middle East and the Asian markets by following a long-term strategy, especially following its launch of the Oval Diastar. RADO had built up an efficient network of distributors and after-sales service centers. It even managed customer repairs in India and China long before their watches were available for sale in those countries. Securing watch repair services for all the expatriates working outside their own country proved to be a powerful strategy.
Leading by Following, Can It Succeed?
TISSOT was part of the same group and wanted to leverage RADO’s success. TISSOT aimed to benefit from RADO’s network by positioning itself below RADO’s price point. To achieve this, TISSOT used the tagline “TISSOT, a sister company of RADO.” RADO also benefited because it could remove its entry price level watches that would have competed with TISSOT and move to a higher average price point for its collections in the Middle East. The low-to-mid-priced segment was dominated by the Japanese manufacturers, in particular Orient (part of Seiko), Citizen, and Seiko itself. The Seiko 5 product line was the benchmark for the lower-priced, automatic watch market. In the early 1990s, mechanical watches were far less important than quartz watches.
Mechanical Watches Were A Practical Choice
However, in APEC, expatriates and those based in the countryside where it was hard to find replacement batteries for the quartz movement were looking for low-priced mechanical watches. Mechanical watches are timeless, repairable, and even at the entry-level, seen as a long-term investment. This was not related to the return to dominance of mechanical watches that we have seen over the last 20 years; it was purely a practical, thoughtful choice.
Life Full of Memories
TISSOT’s strategy to enter the Middle East was based on using RADO’s distribution network. They would create two product lines that would target the Seiko 5 market of daily-wear automatic watches. This would be TISSOT’s beachhead into the broader
market. The intention was to expand the range with product lines from the International TISSOT collection and slowly build the brand presence.
The launch planning was extensive and consisted of roadshows, dealer meetings, and advertising in key cities throughout the Middle East. This was a unique opportunity for a young man to participate in a significant brand launch and travel to most of the Middle East. Moving from city to city in 1992, just one year after the end of the Desert Storm war, was a fantastic experience. It still amazes me that I witnessed Dubai with just a couple of low-rise buildings in its center. Kuwait was deserted, with burned-out tanks littering the desert. Qatar was quite a restricted country at the time, and DOHA a small place. It was an unforgettable experience.
No Time To Stop
During this period, it was another city every two days. We would check out the meeting area and organize the showcases with the RADO decorator who traveled with us. Store checks, product discussions in retail stores, lots of tea and coffee, and finally, fantastic local dishes were part of our daily routine. The meeting day was like a mini-fair. The country’s distributor team would accompany many local retailers to the TISSOT product and marketing introduction presented on overhead projectors using transparent folios!
Leaving the Middle East at the end of the roadshow, our whole team was sitting alone in a Swissair airplane on an early morning flight with perfect, gorgeous weather conditions. In those days, the pilots were able to socialize with the passengers. I was able to join the pilot in the cockpit as we flew over the Nile delta; it was the perfect ending to an unforgettable experience.
1992 was also my first trip to Beijing. I was to join an early meeting with the government’s distribution company, which was common practice. At the time, Beijing’s population was only 8 million. There were few high-rise buildings. The tallest probably did not exceed 20 floors; the Hutongs lived in and were not just a tourist attraction. I was amazed to see a very professional-looking slide rule in active service at the department store near Tiananmen Square.
What Released The Dragon?
It is interesting to look back and see that there were no direct exports of Swiss watches to China reported in the Swiss export statistics until 2000. In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organisation, and its Swiss watch imports exploded. In the 20 years from China’s ascension to the WTO, Swiss watches’ imports to China grew to approximately CHF 2.4 billion.
The Downs in Business
TISSOT, meanwhile, was launching in more countries and was running advertising campaigns throughout Asia. There were promotions too, but the sales numbers in the early 1990s were not increasing regardless of the efforts. The sell-through remained weak, and the products did not appear to appeal to the region – it was a tough time to be a Product Manager – poor me.
I traveled with the Regional Sales Managers, performed store checks, and discussed with the retail and distributor staff to understand what could be improved. You can imagine that while the brand had no momentum and did not have name recognition, every small detail of the product was critiqued. We would receive so many comparisons with “dear” ROLEX or the mid-price market-leading brands, mainly the Japanese watch brands.
Nothing Good Enough
Sometimes nothing seemed to match with local expectations. If it was not the case size that was too big at 38 mm, the problem was that the boy-size was not available or the dials were the wrong colors. Sometimes, the gold plating color was not exactly right, the index not good enough, the leather straps were poor quality. The list went on and on. At the time, many brands fell into the trap of addressing all these whims by enlarging their collection size. This created a vast number of SKUs that were trying to match with the regional demand. These brands had made an enormous number of variations, called regional collections. I remember large shop-in-shop counters of EBEL or MAURICE LACROIX, just to name a few, full of huge numbers of variations. Thankfully, I was a stubborn Swiss with large shoulders and resisted.
Finding the Right Move
We had experienced a painful lesson with the me-too strategy at TISSOT. The discovery was that you could not succeed without visible price advantage or large investment into marketing. Neither is it healthy for the bottom line in the long run. Uniqueness, having a differentiated offer, was as vital then as it is today. 1993 was a breakthrough year. TISSOT initiated its first Asia workshop in Macau with a focus on products. Each of the regional markets presented their product needs, their expectations, from pricing to style and collection size to colors. After summarizing the findings at the closing meeting, we went back to Switzerland and started working.
Customer is King
The outcome of that Asian workshop was Ballade’s product line that transformed everything for TISSOT in the Asian markets. TISSOT finally had developed a unique yet classic dress watch that was in sync with the trends and expectations of the Asian region. The sell-through finally materialized, distribution widened, and other collections became accepted. The breakthrough had been achieved.
So Who Buys All Those Swiss Watches?
We could go through and detail the sales by market, but it would be no surprise that China is the biggest market for Swiss watches. There would be no surprise that the Asian markets represent 53% of the total Swiss Watch Exports in 2019, including the Middle East accounting for 9%. By comparison, the USA represents 11.1%, all Europe 30.5%. The UK leads with 6.3%, Germany with 5.2%, France 4.9%, and Italy 4.5%. The real truth is that a unique individual purchases each Swiss watch; each person has their desires and objectives when purchasing their watch. That period of my life was to best sales strategy, network, and marketing campaign, but the breakthrough came when we understood the customer and created a unique, stand-alone product they related to.