Where Timing Is Everything

With only a few weeks to go before Christmas last year, the watches still weren’t on display at Ron Oppenheimer’s new store, Orologio, in Short Hills, N.J. An ambitious construction schedule proved too short for a planned Thanksgiving debut.

Instead, the watches were locked in a vault already on the construction site. “Our employees were there during construction accepting the watches as they arrived, keeping inventory and putting them in the vault,” says Oppenheimer. So when construction was finally completed, Oppenheimer and his staff could easily and quickly fill the showcases just in time for the heat of the Christmas selling season: Dec. 14.

“Everyone said we couldn’t build the store so quickly or open that late and have it work out,” says Oppenheimer. “But we did it and we sold well.”

Experience with time and timing seems to be the key factor. Oppenheimer opened his first Orologio (“watch” in Italian) six years ago in a large mall in Paramus, N.J. The new 1,100-sq.-ft. location is on the second floor of The Mall at Short Hills, 25 miles west of Manhattan. The 135-store mall is newly renovated and expanded, anchored by Saks Fifth Ave. and Bloomingdale’s. Tiffany, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom are expected to arrive this August.

In his new high-end retail neighborhood, Oppenheimer draws a slightly more knowledgeable watch buyer than at his store in midmarket Paramus. And the Short Hills shopper is less likely to express sticker shock, he says.

Both stores offer Breit ling, Citizen, Concord, Gucci, Kreiger, Movado, Omega, Swiss Army, TAG Heuer and Raymond Weil, plus a limited number of fashion watches, including Fossil and Swatch, several desk clocks and writing instruments. The new store also offers two brands at the higher end of the price curve: Girard-Perregaux and the line from French designer Alain Silberstein.

Competition? This selection has helped Oppenheimer to carve a niche even though his store is one of the newest in the mall. He says he’s the only retailer there with a substantial watch selection: “No one else here sells Breitling, Omega, Kreiger, Girard-Perregaux or Silverstein.”

While Oppenheimer considers Orologio a destination shop for watch lovers or for service, he is careful to appeal to the casual visitor and the window shopper. Eye-catching selections at the front of the store combine well-known names with unique selections. For example, nationally advertised Breitling, Omega, Concord or TAG Heuer mix with lesser known Girard-Perregaux and Alain Silberstein.

Oppenheimer promoted both stores in full-page weekly advertisements the month before Christmas in the New Jersey editions of The New York Times. These and a few co-op ads comprise the bulk of Oppenheimer’s marketing efforts to date. “I hope to do more direct mail this year,” he says. In addition, Orologio hosted a trunk show with an Omega representative last year and is likely to host similar events with other brands this year.

Watch wall draw: Once a shopper stops at the front of Orologio, even for a chrono-timed second, he or she will likely take a giant step into the store to get a closer look at one unmistakable feature: a 14.5-by-10.5-ft. mural that depicts a watch movement inside a case. Once inside for a better look, the shopper is flanked by several sets of long showcases. On the left, two waist-high cases are interrupted with an elegant curved wall case. On the right, two long cases are separated by the cashier’s area. Additional shelf space, to be made into showcases later, is already built into the right wall.

At the back of the store under the mural sits a service desk. Hidden behind a watch face on the mural is a door that opens to the repair office where the store’s watchmaker, European-trained Gerard Karsenty, works.

Karsenty has been able to satisfy the large number of customers who enter the store for repairs, but he’s not likely to fix one of the biggest jobs in the store: the mural. A second look at the center of the painting reveals a clock movement without hands. The painter finished the clock in time for the opening of the store, but as of early April had yet to install the hands. While assuring that repairs on standard size watches are completed promptly, Oppenheimer is somewhat forgiving about the hands for the mural. The person installing the hands is an artist, not a watchmaker.

Discount pressure: Oppenheimer, who 10 years ago was in the real estate business, developed his interest in watches into his vocation when he opened the Paramus store. “This is a beautiful business with a beautiful product,” he says. “But it’s very hard work – not at all as you might expect as an outside observer.”

In addition to the late night and Sunday hours required in malls, he cites the continued pressure of maintaining a no-discount policy in the face of retailers who sell watches as loss leaders or who buy gray-market goods (brand-name merchandise made for foreign markets but imported to the U.S. by unauthorized dealers without the consent of the trademark owner).

“Once a customer has been able to buy a style at 35% off,” he says, “the market for that product has been damaged.” Oppenheimer regularly implores watchmakers to place stricter controls on their distribution. He praises those that do.

To counter discounting, Oppenheimer emphasizes his relationships with his customers, the depth of his product offerings, the training of his staff and the services they offer. In addition to the full-time watchmaker in Short Hills, he also offers free lifetime battery replacement on every watch sold. With select brands, he provides a loaner watch if requested and is considering adding extra time to manufacturer warranties.