Why the watch industry struggles with the internet

To say the internet has impacted the watch industry is an understatement. Over the last 30 years, it’s played an integral role in transforming a relatively small, “cottage” industry into a global, luxury powerhouse. It’s the catalyst for the industry’s newfound popularity. Today, even names high in the haute horology totem pole, like Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, are widely recognized by mainstream fashion, lifestyle, and entertainment cultures.

Of course, the internet has also produced some more questionable outcomes, from the rise of the collector-dealer to the booming online secondary market and the increasing financialization of watches. Nevertheless, I believe the internet has mostly been a positive force, especially for the industry’s growth.

Yet, it feels like the watch industry is still in its infancy on the internet. Yes, all the brands and dealers are now on social media, and many are taking on digital advertising. But very few do much in the way of engaging the community and actively participating in a dialogue with us. The internet is fundamentally a two-way street, but the whole industry still treats it like print media – hit “publish” and move on to the next thing. It’s no wonder the younger generation seem disinterested.

I used to think these issues were due to the industry being fundamentally “old-fashioned”. But I believe there is a deeper reason, rooted in the industry’s history. This indifference to the internet is not a function of willful negligence, but rather a consequence of the existing long-term partnership between manufactures and authorized dealers.

The manufacture-distributor model doesn’t work on the internet

In the historical division of labor, the manufacture was true to its name. From Rolex to Patek Philippe, many luxury watch brands were primarily focused on production, outsourcing a majority of sales and distribution to authorized dealers all over the globe. While a select few VIP customers did have a direct relationship to the maisons, most consumers of your average luxury watch brand interacted with the middlemen dealers, and were content with that experience. Ultimately, most of one’s “experience” with a brand happened in the retailer, through an occasional print advertisement, and on your wrist.

Fast forward to the 21st century, the internet is now the platform where millions of people interact with luxury watch brands and products on a daily basis. Without any hard numbers, I would guess there are more interactions with luxury watch brands and products per hour than there ever were in the entire 19th century. This is to say, the scale of the general consumer audience and hardcore collector community is way beyond any historical imagination. And it’s still growing…

Powered by social media, these devices that we cradle in our hands make our connection to watch companies feel much more personal. Or, at the very least, that personal connection is what we crave. We want to engage with the brands and their products that we come to adore so much. But the brands aren’t reciprocating.

It’s for this exact reason that the internet occupies an awkward presence: the internet is a huge, mostly unmanaged gap between authorized dealers and watch brands. The online watch community is in a vast void that the industry won’t reach into.

By nature of the traditional manufacture-distributor structure of the industry, both brands and AD’s are ill-equipped to manage the global scale of the internet today. And how could they? Historically, the authorized dealers have always been local and the brands have never worked much in the “market.” The internet is unsettling because it’s really the authorized dealers problem, but your Patek Philippe dealer in Montgomery, Ohio or Newcastle, England isn’t going to be a leader on the internet. This forces the ball back in the brands’ court. They’re being pulled into the market, whether they like it or not.

What now?

Interestingly, Govberg, the local Philadelphia authorized dealer of many brands, has made the jump very formidably from local to global with Watchbox. Though only dealing in used watches, Watchbox is filling this gap between the local authorized dealers and the manufactures.

There’s so much discussion in the industry about direct-to-consumer and e-commerce as the future, but that’s not really “going all in” on the internet game. Merely adding an e-commerce store to your website won’t make you a major internet player. It will require an extensive investment in educational content and community management.

If the watch industry really does want to fill the void between authorized dealers and manufactures, it requires more than being present.

Another day with the beast,

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