Who Will Own the Pre-Owned Watch Market?

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Pre-owned watch market - Watchfinder.com

“Watch brands can no longer ignore the phenomenon of second-hand,” monochrome.com insists. “Their clients have larger access to information and to this market. It cannot be left in third-party hands only: the watch brands need to play the game one way or the other.” Are we about to see Rolex, OMEGA, Seiko and other major players elbowing-out vintage and gray market watch dealers to claim a piece of the multi-billion dollar pre-owned watch market? A better question: should they? . . .

Pre-owned watch market chrono24.com

At the moment, the used watch market is a non-starter for the big boys. With a couple of notable exceptions, manufacturers shun pre-owned programs. Nor do they buy and sell their own watches on the secondary market. And yet, again, the pre-owned watch market is worth big bucks: well north of $10B. Who better to steal market share from secondhand dealers and websites like Chrono24.com and watchfinder.com?

Theoretically, it’s a win-win: manufacturers get another source of income, buyers get to buy from a if not the trusted source. So why can’t you walk into a Patek Philippe Authorized Dealer and buy a fabulous pre-loved Nautilus? There are a few important issues to overcome, not including watchmakers’ inherent conservatism. (Hello? Have you met a Swiss company?)

Panerai London boutique - Richemont brand

First, the manufacturers’ pre-loved watches would compete with their new timepieces. Given that watches are not a high-wear item, given that the manufacturer would have to warranty the used watches, buyers would naturally stray from the case displaying box fresh watches to the case showing only slightly less worn but a lot less expensive and otherwise identical (for all practical purposes) pre-owned models.

But, you say, the used market already competes with the new market. Patek, Audemars Piguet, Rolex, Vacheron, Grand Seiko, IWC and the rest might as well make some money off of pre-owned watches. Not so fast.

Breitling Endurance Pro price

If you look at the income statements of any of these manufacturers, their gross margin on new watches is somewhere on the order of 50 percent.

It’s hard to imagine that the used watch market could deliver that kind of obscene healthy profit. The manufacturer would have to buy the pre-owned watch on the secondary market then repair and refurbish it to a level approaching new (or risk dinging their reputation).

Don’t forget: the manufacturers would have to do so while competing on price with independent vintage dealers using non-union watchmakers. While the process is certainly feasible, the margin on the final sale is highly unlikely to hit the magic 50 percent. The value add for is simply not high enough.

Zenith showroom Tokyo

That said, not every business line within a company has to deliver the same gross margin as their primary segment. The lower margins on pre-owned watches might be repaid by higher turnover/footfall/page views, leading to greater cash flow and/or customer engagement, leading to greater sales of higher margin new product.

Might. [See: comment on Swiss conservatism above.] At the same time, a big move into the pre-owned watch market business requires a different go-to-market and distribution model. Since many of these big players have few or no direct dealers/web sales, they will either have to build out these capabilities or partner with authorized dealers. (Some already do, although it’s nascent at this stage).

Jomashop

That’s a huge issue. There are a lot of players in this market already – one where 100 percent of the profit accrues to the retailers. So manufacturers need to offer a lot of value-add here to the channel or muscle their way in (more on that in Part 2). Regardless, it’s a set of capabilities that the European brands generally lack.

Bottom line: manufacturers selling pre-owned watches isn’t a slam dunk. However, it makes so much sense I can’t see it not happening.

All of these manufacturers have indicated they’re not going to produce a significantly larger volume of their most desirable pieces. Regardless of the merits of this approach (and whether you think they should be raising prices), it’s in their best interests to have an obtainable (not necessarily affordable) entry point into their collections.

Pre-owned watch market - Shopworn

Used pieces can be used as an entry-level items for people just getting into watch collecting. The ability to walk into a dealer and buy a like-new piece shouldn’t be underestimated. As mentioned above, it keeps people in the brand, as opposed to going elsewhere.

At the moment, prices for highly desirable watches remain below the market clearing point; having a lower-priced line of like-new watches would give manufacturers cover to raise prices on new-new pieces. And this can be achieved without the shenanigans of sub-lines or brand dilution. I guarantee, if I were running a watch company, I would be looking at this very carefully.

It also makes sense for us, the watch buying public.

Crown & Caliber

While the used market has become Very Online over the last decade, its nature hasn’t changed significantly. There are small dealers and traders who use sites like Chrono24, and larger “aggregator” sites that buy and sell like Crown & Caliber. However, all the of the typical problems of a used market exist, from adverse selection, to counterfeits, to people simply wanting something perfect.

At a stroke, the manufacturers can fix all of this. Watches returned to a fully functional, like-new state? Of course! Five year warranties and authorized channels? Yes please. I recently had a Seamaster serviced by Omega and the watch I got back was indistinguishable from when I bought it new, 20 years ago.

IWC Ingenieur

The idea here is not to replace the used market. It’s to supplement it: build a new, higher tier for enthusiasts who value such things. There will always be a place for watches with patina, just as there are both fully-restored and “driver’s” cars.

This makes tons of sense. I’m excited just thinking about it. In Part 2, we will envision how to build something like this, paying attention to the all-important distribution channels and relationships between the manufacturers and the market.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I can’t help but see the parallels with the “certified pre-owned” gimmick that auto manufacturers came up with way back when, realizing that they could sell the same car twice. Well, the dealer sells it twice, not the manufacturer. But the assurance and related markup of the official certification and warranty eclipses anything available elsewhere.

    One would think this would work very well with the model of rewarding repeat buyers with access to the top offerings. The customer that wants the grail watch at any cost will be flipping the lesser items bought to satisfy requisite ladder steps. The AD might as well seize all that resale profit for themselves.

    There are two aspects of the “reaching” customer and all this. The first is that it gets them in the store, a potentially intimidating and exclusive place. The excuse for them to show up a few years earlier, or at all, is the vital first step in getting a new customer. The other is to avoid bad brand experiences and bad word of mouth resulting from substandard used purchases.

    When a product has not seen innovation or even restyling in years, it’s a tough sell to claim that the new item is a justifiable expense over the used. These are durable goods.

  2. Um, have you been reading my drafts? Suffice to say I agree with you on all of this and will be in Part 2!

    I think the point about not restyling is an important one. There’s a balance between competing with the new market and supplementing it; a brand like Rolex would certainly have this problem. However, I think there are two ways to avoid it. The first is that with a PO program manufacturers can control the price for their own offerings so you price high enough to avoid too much competition. Second, it gives them the ability to actually decrease new production if they want to and still appease their dealers / shareholders.

  3. Richemont owns Watchfinder, so they may be ahead of you on this; I suppose this is how Watchfinder got their hands on the Lange for their new video.

  4. Excellent post. Great read all around.

    I’ll second Oscar’s point above. It’s unlikely manufacturers will allow independently-owned ADs to resell used watches because that would put ADs in competition with the manufacturer. The AD gets the sale but it doesn’t move any new metal for the manufacturer.

    • Totally agree. In any authorised-used relationship between the mfr and the AD, the manufacturer is going to be the one getting the biggest cut and defining the program. Which is going to make it far less attractive to an independent AD. Which, in turn, means that the manufacturers would need a carrot-and-stick strategy for their channels…

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