When David Palermo stumbled upon the Breitling watch boutique in Aventura Mall, he couldn’t resist going inside to take a look.
Admiring the $11,100 MontBrillant 47 Limited Edition he placed on his wrist, Palermo was definitely tempted. But he already owns four luxury watches and wasn’t quite ready to fork over the credit card for another one. Yet, Palermo didn’t rule out a return visit.
“I’m always in the market for a watch,” said Palermo, a 42-year-old insurance broker visiting from Toronto, who was already sporting another Breitling on his arm. “It’s important for me to have certain things that convey status.”
In the past four months, Breitling, Ulysse Nardin and TAG Heuer all opened luxury watch boutiques in the Aventura Mall. Although each has one stand-alone boutique elsewhere in the country, each chose Miami as its second location. They joined Omega and Mont Blanc, which opened last year at Aventura, plus a string of other stores like Tourneau that carry multiple luxury brands.
Call it yet another marker that the recession is over — at least for a certain segment of the population. These watch companies see Aventura as an attractive market to reach both international tourists like Palermo and South Florida consumers with disposable income.
Depending on the brand, these handmade Swiss watches start at $1,500 and can go as high as $700,000 or beyond, with the average in $5,000-to-$15,000 range. But that price point isn’t viewed as a barrier in South Florida, which already ranks among the top five U.S. markets for most luxury watch brands.
“The higher-end watch business in the American market has gone through explosive growth,” said Nelson Lucero, vice president of sales and marketing for Ulysse Nardin North America, which is headquartered in Boca Raton. “People come into our Aventura store with a specific watch in mind and a high level of awareness about our brand. It’s more of a connoisseurs’ market.”
It’s also another indication that Aventura Mall has arrived as destination for luxury retail. The mall has already seen the arrival of Louis Vuitton, Burberry and M. Missoni. And more are on the way as Aventura is positioned to benefit from the realignment of Miami’s luxury retail market that has brands expanding and shifting spaces at a pace never seen before. In the watch sector alone, Mayor’s plans to create a Rolex boutique in half of its existing Aventura store. Franck Muller and Corum are among the luxury watch brands inquiring about vacancies
“Our customer is very brand-oriented and brands do well in our mall,” said Jackie Soffer of Turnberry Associates, which owns the mall. “It’s probably about volume. We have a lot of qualified bodies. These stores bring a better customer to the mall more often.”
While the luxury watch market took a hit during the recession, it largely has rebounded — particularly at the highest price points. Last year, Swiss watch exports saw record growth of 19 percent, reaching total value of 19.3 billion Swiss francs or $21.2 billion, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. Forecasts for continued growth, particularly in Asia, fueled optimism last week as the industry gathered for Baselworld, the world’s biggest watch fair.
Yet, industry experts admit they have seen some changes in consumer shopping attitudes, certainly in the U.S.
“It’s not quite back to where we were in 2007, but it’s back to very good levels,” said Thierry Prissert, president of Breitling USA. “Consumers are still being careful. You have to show people that you have a good value.”
The luxury watches selling the best are those that are typically understated and classic.
“They’re not showy in the traditional blingy way,” said Victoria Gomelsky, editor-in-chief of Jewelers’ Circular Keystone, an industry trade publication. “These are the kind of really collectable pieces that are just works of art. You have to be a connoisseur to really know what it is.”
The total U.S. watch market hit $5 billion last year; 45 percent of sales came from watches priced $5,000 and above, according to LGINetwork, an NPD Group Company that tracks the watch industry. The biggest sales growth in 2011 — 48 percent – came in the sale of men’s watches between $10,000 and $25,000. Total 2011 sales of watches priced $10,000 and up exceeded both the volume and number of units sold before the recession, according to LGINetwork.
“The luxury watch market in the U.S. is extraordinarily healthy and the very high end is growing incredibly rapidly,” said Fred Levin, president of LGINetwork. “The challenge is really the supply constraints that are preventing brands from being able to satisfy demand.”
Luxury watch brands in the under-$10,000 category are sending more of their supply to Asia and leaving less supply available for the U.S. market. That’s kept U.S. sales volumes for these price points at 40 to 60 percent below pre-recession levels.
With less volume available, maximizing profits is even more important to manufacturers. Brand-owned boutiques allow improved profit margins by cutting out the jewelry store as the middle man.
“If you only have so many products you can sell, the heads of these companies are making decisions about where they want to allocate product,” Levin said. “By channeling product to their boutiques, it does provide a better economic solution for them.”
The boutique also provides an opportunity to showcase the brand and its high-priced limited-edition watches. Customers also find employees that really know the intricacies of each watch — expertise not always available at shops selling multiple brands.
At the Ulysse Nardin store, the entire store is designed as an homage to the brand’s nautical heritage, with timepieces displayed in porthole windows and anchors on the walls. At Breitling, the focus is on the brand’s connection to aviation. Tag Heuer emphasizes its racing heritage.
“We’ve really found there is a desire for consumers to interact directly with the brand,” said Alyssa Mishcon, vice president of strategic planning for Tag Heuer North America. “This is our opportunity to speak directly to the customer. We’re able to tell a compelling brand story.”
The brands like being clustered together in a mall or street because it increases the volume of general consumer traffic — and they may have a chance to pick off shoppers who initially come to look at one brand then decide to check out others.
“Our job is to introduce the Breitling brand to more people,” said Prissert, who lives part-time in West Palm Beach. “If you have more brands coming into the mall, that’s a positive because you can draw more interested buyers. We’re not afraid of the competition.”