Rolex Shortage – Is It Killing the Brand?

Rolex shortage - Glendale, CA smash-and-grab

“Glendale police circulated security images of a man wanted for stealing several Rolex watches in a ‘smash-and-grab’ burglary at a Glendale jewelry store,” LA’s dailynews.com reports. Check out the video after the jump. I’m thinking “several” means one. Maybe two. I’m sure the robber didn’t attack an authorized Rolex dealer because a) there’s none on the block mentioned and b) Rolex AD’s don’t have any Rolex to steal. Which is a serious problem for the brand . . .

Thanks to a combination of COVID-19-related production cuts and soaring demand, Rolex authorized dealers’ display cases are virtually or totally empty. While large swathes of the American watch buying public revere Rolex as the ultimate watch, the ultimate status symbol, they can’t buy one. They haven’t been able to for months. And there’s no word when that will change.

Rolex shortage there ya go

Short term, the Rolex shortage works in the Geneva watchmaker’s favor. Our watches are so awesome they’re sold out! Reputation enhanced! Long term, it’s an existential threat. Why should consumers wait to buy a Rolex when no one knows when that’ll be possible?

Remember: American consumers have been Amazoned. A two-day delivery seems a bit sluggish. Coronageddon increased this impatience, as well as disposable income (no vacations, fine dining or expensive parties). Well-heeled consumers are ready, willing and able to buy a Rolex – to feel better about their interminable isolation. Only, again, they can’t.

Rolex shortage

At the same time, social isolation presents precious few occasions to gawk at other people’s watches, or have them look at yours. Unplugged from the normal milieu – that determined that a Rolex is the ne plus ultra of timepieces – they’re free to think outside the box. To buy another luxury watch brand.

Rolex isn’t “in trouble.” Far from it. It take a long time for a strong brand to die. Rolex is the Oleksii Novikov of the luxury watch world.

Rolex will eventually restock its authorized dealers with watches – maybe even to the point where they have Rolex models for walk-ins. This one, two or maybe three year drought will fade from the consumers’ consciousness. Rolex rep will emerge unscathed. Or will it?

empty box

Let’s face it: an empty Role display case at an authorized Rolex dealer looks odd. It reminds me of a Hungarian department store during my ancestral homeland’s membership in the Soviet Union. With all that expensive Rolex branding signage nearby, the “here’s where we used to display Rolex” showroom looks post-apocalyptic. Unprofessional. That’s bad for branding.

What’s more, a luxury watch buyer forced – forced I tell you! – to pick up a Rolex alternative isn’t going to say “Well, I really wanted a Rolex but they didn’t have any so I bought this instead.” They’re going to say “my new luxury watch is at least as good/better than a Rolex.” Word-of-mouth social buzz will aid and abet Rolex’s competitors.

OMEGA showroom

I reckon the Rolex shortage opens the door to non-Rolex horological status symbols. OMEGA sure isn’t complaining (although the flight from Rolex is leaving their display cases a bit threadbare).

Does the Rolex shortage put the Swiss watchmaker on the path to becoming “a” luxury watch brand instead of “the” luxury watch brand (for the sub-high horology set)? That depends how quickly they fill those cases. For a luxury watchmaker, what you can’t sell can hurt you.

30 comments

  1. This speaks to me. I am on like 3 waiting lists for the Rolex I liked. Used to travel a lot for work and would pop by the local Rolex boutique in every city I went. Then one day I just started feeling like an idiot. Not sure why. I’m a grown ass man and I’m begging someone to sell me a watch? I’m in the cool club if I get one? I just realized I’m a sheep and I didn’t like it. I no longer want that watch.

    1. Bingo. That’s how I feel about my previous grail, the Daytona. I’ve fallen out of love with it. It ain’t worth THAT much. It’s just not.

      And, rather than the “cool” club, it’s become the UNcool club. Now I’m learning about other brands of watches like Ball and Zenith and Formex and others.

    2. Same here. If it weren’t for the shortage I would have added a Pepsi GMT-Master and a Sky-Dweller to my Explorer II I bought in 2018. Instead, I have 25k burning a hole in my pocket and looking for something to spend it on (forthcoming article!).

          1. I would say that while for people reading thetruthaboutwatches the alternative to a Rolex is likely a different watch, for people that casually wanted a Rolex the alternative is not necessarily a different watch. Especially in the era of the Apple Watch as the upper middle class default, so it’s not like passing on a Rolex will leave a person with a naked wrist.

            I was strongly eying up the Explorer II as a second Rolex, but I’m sure not going to pay a premium on the secondary market. I looked at the Steinhart Ocean One Vintage for a second (by FAR the coolest watch they sell). Even though I respect it for not being a knock-off of a current model, it was still a bit too fugazi for me. So I ended up with the Alpina AL-727SS4H6 chronograph (review to follow) with the same radial brushed bezel and funky 70s vibes as the Explorer II. ~$700 grey.

            I’m not sure what my point is but I think it’s that for non-watch people the alternative to a Rolex is probably not a watch, and for watch nerds it is probably something under $1,000 until the irrational exuberance leaves the watch market.

          2. I’m not sure what my point is but I think it’s that for non-watch people the alternative to a Rolex is probably not a watch

            That may be a good point. The reality is that if you asked the “average” person out there to name another “fine Swiss watch maker besides Rolex,” you’d likely get a blank look. The vast majority of them have never even heard of the other names so casually thrown around on watch blogs and forums.

            So, if they ever reach a point in their lives when they’ve decided to reward themselves with a “fine Swiss watch,” it’s a Rolex. And, if they can’t get a Rolex, will they look to other (quite worthy) brands that they’ve never even heard of? I think you may be right about that.

          3. I broadly agree with both of you. The majority of Rolexes are sold as signaling mechanisms / signs of success rather than to watch nerds like us. And those signaling mechanisms are changing pretty quickly. I think the calculus is quickly becoming not “Rolex vs Omega” but “Rolex vs Apple Watch + a vacation”.

            If the Rolex signals financial success, the Apple Watch signals a different kind of aspiration, broadly characterized as “I am active/popular/important enough to need a computer on my wrist”. Bad news for most mid-end manufacturers.

            On another note, in 2018 when I bought my Explorer II, I got it for below retail. (I chose it over a Batman GMT-Master II because the GMT sits too high on my wrist and was too flashy for the work I do).

            Now they’re advertised on Chrono24 for 11-13k. They’re great watches but WTF.

  2. This next round of $1,400 welfare checks is going to goose the watch market even more.

    However, as people start to go back outside again with vaccines, moderate politicians get tired of bankrupting the country with stagflation driving welfare checks, and Rolex catches up with demand, it sure is going to suck to be a watch brand in the $5,000 – $10,000 range that is not Rolex.

    The Rolex shortage is bailing out a lot of mediocre watch companies with overpriced watches.

    1. I’m not so sure about that. I think Rolex has shit the proverbial bed. I like my Yachtmaster, and it has sentimental value (gift from my wife). But, I no longer pine for a Daytona. Rolex has lost its luster as a coveted brand to me. As I’ve learned about other watches, I cannot escape the conclusion that Rolex is WAAAAY overvalued and even more so now.

        1. Omega and Grand Seiko are doing good, innovative watches with co-axial and spring drive, and have further established themselves with the Rolex shortage.

          They will be ok if/when the Rolex shortage ends, but their buyers will be able to get better deals again at ADs and on the grey market. Everyone else in the $5,000 – $10,000 range will face a reckoning.

  3. This would be a fabulous business case study on the limits of supply vs customer demand. In business school, having been the only one who worked in the luxury world, I was always the proponent of running out of stock for a limited time to create further demand for non-necessities (I will say that my fellow students never understood this concept which is why MBA’s destroy luxury businesses, but that’s a discussion for another day). I think Rolex is getting away with it somewhat because of Coronavirus, but at the same time, if their products sell more on the secondary market than new, this will also create an issue with their dealers and price control at the original POS.

    Rolex is trading on reputation and brand as we all know, to get a quality watch that is close to spec isn’t very hard and as stated above the increased popularity of Grand Seiko (albeit, very boring designs) with superior time keeping abilities. Will this be a problem in the long-term? As a consumer I certainly hope so since the alternatives and the wanting to wait are endless for the former and consistently a turn-off for the latter. As the douchebag who never turns down a meal of Federico talks watches said, it’s a really strong mass market brand.

  4. So … as one dude anecdote example, I’ve got six figures in Rolex sports watches, sitting in the safe. I like Rolex, and buying some.

    Was buying one here and there, up to about … 2017/-18. You want a watch (besides a new Daytona maybe), you walk into a dealer and you get one.

    Or buy second hand (2016 or so bought a 116610 for USD 6,200 for example). Towards those later years started noticing bad attitudes at the AD, shifted pretty much all shopping to grey and second hand because that was really super annoying. That ADs got no stock now is kind of hilarious. How are those snooty attitudes working out for you, you f*cks? 😉

    But anyway, there is no stock. Haven’t even looked at Rolex in a few years. Not paying over MSRP for a mass produced, current manufacture watch. Also not buying “something else instead”. Just not focusing on watches, plenty other things to burn some cash on.

    I’m sure they know what they’re doing. Rolex is smarter than Internet bros and all the old farts on forums, and even these recreational bloggers who love sh*tting on success and pitching third rate shitter brand for the audience (which seems like, can’t afford Rolex anyway). They know what they’re producing, they know the sales figures, they see the trends that we can only guess about. They don’t have shareholders to answer to.

    Just like this blog, which doesn’t have advertisers to answer to.

    1. “Rolex is smarter than Internet bros and all the old farts on forums,”

      No one is smarter than if you have no product in a store and turn off consumers as the products you sell are essentially vaporware with no restrictions (unlike cars). As a dealer, I’d be pissed, you’re paying for rent and have no product to help cover the costs, has to hurt and the mark up in store to offset that is even more off putting because you’re not selling at MSRP.

      1. Rolex Inc. may be able to weather the storm, so to speak. But, can the dealers? It’s easy for Rolex to take a break while sitting on a pile of cash. But, most dealers? They need to cover their overhead… with no product to sell. I suppose they can just hope to sell OTHER brands in the mean time?

        1. Plenty of ADs pull the scam where if you buy enough high margin products from them (jewelry, precious metal Rolexes, or other expensive watches from other brands), they’ll let you buy the Rolex you actually want. They’re making piles of money off of you on other stuff rather than the Submariner or GMT. It’s basically extortion, but people keep falling for it so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      2. I met a friend for dinner a couple of years ago at Hudson Yards as it was just beginning to open. Having some time to kill, I wandered into the just-opened Rolex boutique. Half the display cases were empty – the only sport watches they had were precious metal Subs.

        Having no inventory for a brand-new AD in one of the highest end shopping areas in the world goes beyond “MBAs don’t understand luxury” right into “destroying your downstream ecosystem”.

          1. Never occurred to me.

            Rolex has steadfastly and publicly declared that it wants to sell through its AD’s. Period. No online sales. Period. I believe them. Am I wrong?

          2. Agree with Robert. Would love to understand how that would work with Rolex specifically. I could theoretically see them consolidating their ADs and this is a way of starving unfavored ones? But this seems much much more widespread than that.

    2. these recreational bloggers who love sh*tting on success and pitching third rate shitter brand for the audience (which seems like, can’t afford Rolex anyway)….. They don’t have shareholders to answer to….
      Just like this blog, which doesn’t have advertisers to answer to.

      Seems like a self-contradictory statement, not to mention quintessentially snobbish.

      Pitching? How can we be pitching, if we don’t have advertisers to answer to?

      And, because we enjoy other brands… less expensive brands… you ASSUME we can’t afford your exalted brand? Hell…. REAL watch snobs turn their noses up at Rolex. Rolex… the chronometer of the unenlightened masses.

      Over on the WUS Casio / G-Shock forum, there are PLENTY of guys who own Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Patek, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC, Grand Seiko…. and some even slum around with Rolexes. And, those same guys love their G-Shocks. Go figure.

      <---Recreational blogger who has no conflict of interest. But, yeah... the PAID bloggers with conflicts of interest aka "shills" are the ones you should follow. At least they're "professionals."

  5. I just got into watches in mid to late 2019. Finally decided to pull the trigger and purchase a Rolex. I found out it was a terrible time to try buying one. I have one AD within 200 miles of me who, like many others, has NO stock to sell. After numerous conversations with the owner and several sales staff I came to several conclusions. 1) Rolex dictates to its ADs what they are going to sell, thus the AD can’t control its own inventory. 2) If the AD can’t control its inventory how can it possibly sell me a watch? 3) I don’t have time to “build a relationship” with an AD that can’t control its inventory. 4) I am not going to debase myself begging to purchase a $10,000 watch. If the AD wants my business they’ll sell me what I want. If not, I walk. The experience turned me off to the brand. I’m taking a closer look at Grand Seiko, Omega, and Zenith right now.

  6. It’s worse than the article describes. What’s really happening is that grey dealers are making 3x what Rolex are making on their new watches. Normal people can’t justify that. It is only millionaires, playboys, it-girls, ‘people with more money than sense’ who can. So the heritage Rolex built up for the steel sports lines is killed. It is making what was a great, elegant, hard-working hard-playing watch, which used to adorn the wrists of hard-working, hard-playing guys and girls into, as my AD glumly admitted, ‘a commodity’. Very sad. No good at all for the brand long-term. It’s made me think twice when, unaware of how ridiculous the situation had become, I went in to look for a simple white-dial Oyster Perpetual.

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