Pre-Owned Watches – The Next Big Thing?

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Pre-owned watches price chart

“Watch executives mention pre-owned watches most often as the ‘next big thing’,” Deloitte reports. “One-fifth of consumers are likely to buy a pre-owned luxury watch in the next year.” Well ain’t that a kick in the pants! Swiss watchmakers are about to lose significant chunk of their business. Or are they?

Are these buyers picking up a pre-owned luxury Swiss watch instead of or in addition to a new luxury watch? Are they first-time luxury watch buyers who don’t want to pay full whack? Experienced collectors fed up paying full whack? Aspirational buyers who can’t afford to pay full whack for a new watch from a cherished Swiss luxury brand?

No sé. Deloitte’s study lacks granularity (a common shortcoming in documents designed to tempt industry bigwigs into spending big bucks on consultancy services). All we know is that their conclusions and predictions are based on “an online survey of 5,800 consumers in China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.”

pre-owned watches - moonphase

There’s an obvious common factor motivating these demographically mysterious buyers: money. Box fresh luxury Swiss watches are increasingly and, for many, perishingly expensive. The industry’s ever increasing prices have created a significant, vibrant and growing market for less expensive pre-owned examples.

Unless we’re talking about Rolex or grail watches, there’s a huge gap between the price of a new Swiss luxury watch and a pre-owned Swiss luxury watch. And that’s before we talk about the price difference between a new Swiss luxury watch and a gray market Swiss luxury watch. Looking at the state of play generally, you might even say new luxury Swiss watches are overpriced.

Korman Fine Jewelers Austin, TX

According to Imperial Capital, the average clothing retailers’ profit margin is between four and 13 percent. The average watch dealer charges a 40 percent markup on luxury Swiss watches. As for the watchmakers, manufacturing and marketing account for twenty to twenty-five percent of the final retail price. So the horological motherships are also making 40 percent. #metoo?

As our man Franz Rivoira points out, watches aren’t groceries (or KMart clothing). “Products selling in a traditional distribution channel in the high-end and luxury market carry (roughly) a 3.5x – 5x price ratio from costs to final sales price to the customer . . . if you manufacture a watch, and it costs you $1,000, you have to sell it to the public for $3,500 – $5,000 to make a profit for every part of the supply chain.”

Panerai pre-owned watchesNotice the words “traditional distribution channel.” As it has in every other industry, the Internet has taken an axe, blowtorch and Brügger & Thomet APC9 to distribution.

I’m not talking about watchmakers selling online (at full retail) to scarf up their authorized dealers’ 40 percent margin (read about that bun fight here). I’m talking about online dealers selling nearasdammit new watches for significant discounts, accessible to anyone with a desktop computer, tablet or smartphone.

Tourneau, Crown & Caliber, Chrono24, thewatchbox, eBay and others have made the process of buying a pre-owned watch safe, seamless and relatively transparent. Cash conscious luxury Swiss watch buyers can now see exactly how much of a premium they have to pay secure a brand new luxury Swiss watch from an authorized dealer. And say FTS and buy a cheaper pre-owned watch.

Apple Watch and Rolex Explorer (courtesy thetruthaboutwatches.com)

How this price-driven bonanza will impact the Swiss luxury watch industry generally has yet to be seen. If, as Deloitte’s survey suggests, 20 percent of luxury watch buying customers are shifting from new to pre-owned purchases, that’s gonna leave a mark. This when the entire market is shrinking at the hands of the smartwatch.

There’s talk of manufacturers responding to the trend by selling pre-owned watches in their company-owned boutiques. Lower-priced pre-owned products could be marketed as “starter” watches for the financially challenged – a way to ease cash-strapped buyers into the brand’s higher priced watches. Or the boutique’s factory-backed pre-owned watches could cannibalize new watch sales and degrade brand equity (lowering snob value at the point-of-purchase and beyond).

Luxury car showroom

The pressure from burgeoning pre-owned Swiss luxury watch sales may transform the “traditional distribution channel” for luxury watches into something more akin to the luxury car business. Authorized Swiss watch dealers will accept pre-owned watches in trade and offer both “used” watches and manufacturer-approved discounts on new models.

OMEGA Aqua Terra

Given the quality of modern luxury Swiss watches, their owners’ careful stewardship and the online dealers’ substitute warranties, the only cost variable that really counts – the new watch’s full factory warranty – doesn’t. Not much. Saying that, buying a new luxury Swiss watch from an authorized dealer – especially “the latest thing” – remains an “upmarket experience.” Time will tell how much that’s worth, to whom and for how long.

The clear winners in this pre-owned trend: online dealers selling pre-owned luxury watches and the consumer. Well, the consumer buying luxury Swiss watches. The consumer selling a watch bought at full retail (or on the gray market) can’t escape radical depreciation. A painful financial hit that fuels the “never again” pre-owned and gray market. See how that works?

Watch charts courtesy @watchcharts

3 COMMENTS

  1. As for the US, this facade will end soon enough when the Federal Bank has no more bullets left, paper money flows like Mount Vesuvius and the markets finally come to grip with the true “worth” of the dollar.

    It won’t matter how cheap luxury watches are. The only ones coming out ahead, as you alluded to, are the pre-owned luxury watch dealers getting their stock on the cheap from desperate sellers. And even then, that’s assuming there will even be a market for the product given what’s coming.

    We really are living in la-la land.

  2. It’s a great way to get the Omega of your choosing. If it’s pristine, why does it matter if you didn’t buy it from the boutique?

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