Fair Game

Watches are effective money-makers for a sizable number of jewelers, many of whom cultivate that business with in-store watch fairs. Almost one in six U.S. jewelers (18%) now hosts a watch show at least once a year, according to a new JCK national poll, and a third of those do it twice or more—a few as often as eight times a year.

Unlike trunk shows, these mini-fairs feature several watch brands, often have special themes, and sometimes even rate a segment on the local news. Exerting a direct influence on their format are the annual Swiss watch trade fairs, where new timepieces debut and buyers can meet top officials of the brands.

Most jewelers who hold watch fairs do so to build both jewelry and watch sales, consumer awareness, and store traffic. Bove Jewelers in Kennett Square, Pa., for example, has held twice-a-year mini-fairs for three years. Last year’s June event generated “six figures in revenues,” says owner George Reinas. “Each year has been better than the year before.”

Watch suppliers also appreciate successful mini-fairs. The late spring fairs at Hamilton Jewelers in Lawrenceville, N.J., do so well that “some of our vendor reps don’t go to the big Las Vegas show so they can be in our event,” says Donna J. Bouchard, director of marketing.

Timing. One in four jewelers with mini-fairs (24%) hold at least two annually, usually one in each half of the year and to tie in to a holiday. Alson Jewelers in Cleveland, Ohio, schedules its watch event before Father’s Day, “a great occasion for selling watches as gifts and to introduce the year’s new timepieces,” says David Fisher, director of watches. Bove Jewelers also holds a major in-store watch show before Father’s Day and a smaller show in October. “We find holding them at those times really stimulates business for the summer and for Christmas time and attracts new customers,” says Reinas.

Holding a watch show once or twice a year is sufficient, say many jewelers. “Otherwise,” says Fisher, “if we hold too many, they cease to be special.”

But some jewelers do hold shows more frequently. One New York jeweler, who hosted two or three shows annually, this year plans more than half a dozen, he tells JCK. In San Diego, Calif., Leo Hamel Co. holds six to eight shows each year and has done so for 12 years. “We originally started doing this because we found our watch sales tended to drop in the third week of each month,” says president Gary L. Hill. “To boost them and carry us into the next month, we started having these watch events. It’s worked great! Not every one has been a success, but if a particular brand isn’t a big draw, we replace it.

“Now, we do several monthly ones each year, focusing on one or two watch brands, and then one big one—our ‘Watch Extravaganza’—in early November, featuring all our brands, as a prelude to the holiday season.”

Focus. A number of jewelers plan their shows around themes. “Anyone can have a trunk show,” explains Bouchard of Hamilton Jewelers. “What we offer are ‘lifestyle events’ where people come not only to see watches but to experience something different. It’s a fun event clients look forward to.”

Hamilton’s November watch fair—at its Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., store—had a race car theme and featured champion driver Michael Andretti and racing memorabilia such as his racing suit and the front, wings, and tires of his car. Hamilton gave away hundreds of sleek stopwatches—imprinted with the store’s name—before the one-day fair. Recipients had to bring them to the mini-fair to register for prizes, which included sitting with the Andretti Team at a future race or lessons at a school for race drivers. The promotion “generated a lot of buzz, traffic for the store, and a good number of sales,” says Bouchard.

Alson Jewelers’ pre-Father’s Day show in 2003 partnered with local car dealers to bring in Hummers that store visitors could test drive. The mini-fair—promoted as “A Hum-dinger of a Watch Event”—was a big draw, particularly for men. “Guys who like cars are also usually interested in fine watches, and visa versa,” Fisher notes.

Themes also provide opportunities for cross-promotions with other retailers and organizations, which broaden a jeweler’s marketing. For its November event, for example, Hamilton partnered with the Andretti Foundation and VOX vodka (which provided a martini bar), and last spring the firm teamed up with a local Harley-Davidson dealership and an upscale brewery.

The Swiss connection. Most jewelers’ watch shows are designed as mini watch fairs for consumers, focus on moderate to luxury-priced Swiss brands, and echo the big watch fairs in Basel and Geneva.

“We consider our watch fairs to be a ‘mini-Basel,’ ” says Bove’s George Reinas, using a term repeated by a number of jewelers. Bove managers attend the Basel show each year and bring back new and unique watches, which sometimes include a new brand to test market response. “We set it up like a mini Swiss watch fair, with collections, sales reps, and computers and TVs where customers see programs and videos about Switzerland and the brands,” Reinas explains. “It always creates real interest in the watches.”

At the southeast regional chain Mayors Jewelers, chairman and chief executive officer Tom Andruskevich also describes the elaborate October 2003 three-day event at its Boca Raton, Fla., location as “a ‘mini-Basel.’ Our customers get to see all these brands in one place, and our best clients meet the key executives of each.” Mayors promoted the event with ads featuring images of the Swiss Alps, decorated the store with edelweiss (a Swiss flower) and scenes of Switzerland, set up a separate Swiss-themed display (with video) for each brand, offered customers imported Swiss chocolates and foods, and even adorned the hors d’oeuvres toothpicks with tiny Swiss flags.

Before the mini-fair officially opened, Mayors hosted an invitation-only evening for its best watch customers, who could meet top executives of the participating luxury brands, win a free Swiss watch in drawings held every 10 minutes, and get a sneak preview of the new watches.

Planning. Preparing a watch fair—especially coordinating schedules of the vendor reps or officials who participate—takes time and effort. Some stores begin planning a year ahead, and most start in earnest several months in advance. Preparations include advertising, targeting customers, specialized training for store staff, and arranging catering and accessories for themed events.

The general public is the primary audience for at least one-third of the watch shows held by U.S. jewelers, but many also target specific customers. Topping the list are (in order of priority) a jeweler’s best watch and jewelry customers, based on size and frequency of sales; the most affluent customers; and watch collectors. Female professionals and specialized groups (like lawyers or doctors) also get special attention. Hamilton, for example, which has stores in Princeton and Lawrenceville, N.J., targeted Princeton University alumni, offering a free subscription to a watch magazine for those attending its May 2003 fair.

Two out of five jewelers who host watch shows reserve some or all of each fair for invited guests, usually an evening or day before the show opens to the general public. Leo Hamel Co., San Diego, takes a slightly different approach. Each of its six to eight annual shows (excluding its big one in November) spotlights one or two brands. “These are focused events, because different watch customers have different needs and wants,” says co-owner Gary Hill. “IWC’s customer base isn’t the same as Swiss Army’s.”

Promoting an in-store watch show begins in earnest about a month before. Most jewelers use newsletters, postcards, newspaper ads, giveaways on radio, local TV and radio spots, direct mail, and billboards. Unique or special watches, like a grand complications timepiece, can rate a segment on a local TV news or talk show

Leon Hamel Co. finds “one of the most effective things we do is write personal letters to our best watch buyers, different people each week for three weeks before the event,” says Hill. “Each salesperson and administrative staff member has a quota [of customers] to invite. Then, a week before the event, we call each one to confirm they’re coming.” The result: “A very crowded store.”

Costs. The cost to plan, promote, and operate an in-store watch fair varies. Mayors spent more than $100,000 for its October 2003 event, and Leo Hamel Co. spends $5,000 just on postcards. Add advertising, postage, and other expenses, says Hill, and costs can top $12,000 per show.

Alson’s promotions cost “tens of thousands of dollars,” says Fisher. Bove’s timepiece business spends between $10,000 and $32,000 for its June event, while Donna Bouchard estimates Hamilton’s preparation costs “average 5% to 7% of sales.” But as Hill notes, investment and promotion are “key to success in any retail business.” Adds Reinas, “If you do this, you have to support it—and it does stimulate business.”

Participating watch vendors provide various kinds of assistance. Giveaways, either in-store or as advertising promotions, range from key chains and T-shirts to actual timepieces. Marketing and advertising support can include co-op money, catalogs, brochures, postcards, in-store displays and signage, and DVDs or videos about the product.

Most important are a vendor’s products and support personnel. They bring not only their complete lines, including new models and collections, but also unique timepieces the retailer doesn’t carry. “At our last show,” says Alson’s David Fisher, “Vacheron Constantin showed its new perpetual calendar chronograph, something we don’t normally have. It was sold before the day was over.”

In some cases, upscale brands also make timepieces exclusively for a retailer, raising his local profile as a retailer of fine watches. At Mayors’ October watch fair, for example, Corum and Locman both unveiled South Florida-themed luxury watches created specifically for the jeweler.

Some brands send top officials, but usually regional salespeople participate, “the guys and gals who are our contact people,” says Fisher. “They know their brands incredibly well, they know us, and they’re a great educational resource [about the watches]. Consumers enjoy talking to them.” Leo Hamel Co. considers the sales reps so important to the success of its annual November event that “we have a special party for them—we’ve taken them on yachts, on a ‘disco train,’ had bowling nights—the evening before our fair,” says Gary Hill.

ROI. The costs of mini-watch fairs are small, say many jewelers, compared with the benefits. Those include:

  • Visibility. “It’s a great way to let customers know we’re the preeminent watch retailer in the market, with exclusive things,” says Andruskevich. And the support of the participating luxury watch brands is “integral in solidifying our position as the leading retailer here of Swiss watches.” One upstate New York jeweler told JCK that even without exclusive distribution, public “association with watch companies—the strongest brands in our business—helps us in marketing our own brand—that is, our store.”

  • Credibility. A watch fair “helps establish your credibility in your market as the place for fine timepieces, strengthens your connection with your clients, and encourages people to think of your store first when they want to buy a fine timepiece,” says Alson’s Fisher.

  • More traffic. “It’s a great way to get new clients,” says Hamilton’s Bouchard. “We get upwards of 20% new business from these events, half of which become regular customers.” An East Coast jeweler who holds several shows annually told JCK , “We’re always busier during and after them. Curiosity alone brings in potential clients and excites regular clients to come see many more watches and styles than we normally carry.”

  • Revenues. Leo Hamel Co. usually has “a 50% increase in terms of gross income for the week of its shows, notes Gary Hill, while a Colorado jeweler told JCK that his recent show did “huge business—$500,000 in two days!” At Mayors’ October show, “The momentum and excitement created for Mayors as a watch destination carried through into the holidays,” says Andreskevich. “We wanted to generate sales, and we did, selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of watches.”

  • Additional sales in other categories. Watch shows benefit a store’s jewelry, gift, and repair business, too. Hill notes, for example, “Guys like watches—and guys buy jewelry. If we didn’t have the jewelry, we probably wouldn’t do as much with watches. But the watches lead to other sales.”

Indeed, his store’s watch fairs are so effective, he immediately writes vendors at the end of his November event saying, “Mark your calendars now to be with us again next year!”