With This Watch Line, I Thee Wed

McCarver & Moser of Sarasota, Fla., was a prominent retail store in a serious financial crisis. Payments to suppliers were behind, customers were alienated and the business of one of the nation’s top watch shops was suffering. The owners blamed the troubles on bad store management, a hiring decision gone terribly wrong. Meanwhile, the store and its watch vendors took a big hit.

Only then, facing a firing squad of bill collectors and upset consumers, did McCarver & Moser find out who its true supplier partners were. It also found out who were not. The owners’ eyes couldn’t be opened any wider.

“Partnership is a concept, but for some companies it’s mostly a concept in their minds rather than reality,” says Everett McCarver, president of McCarver & Moser. “With one watch supplier, 18 years of good business went down the drain after we didn’t buy for six months.

“But some really tried to work out a partnership with us. These are the people who could have turned against us, but they were loyal. And now that times are better again, we have to remember those suppliers who were there for us.”

In the jewelry industry, watch companies are the champions of partnerships. Solid partnerships result when supplier and retailer work together to build the watch brand’s sales and awareness and the retailer’s sales and profits.

It’s a two-way street.

There have been collisions along the way but, overall, watch companies are jewelers’ closest allies. True, other partnerships exist, particularly in designer jewelry, but partnering is par for the course in watches. Watch companies – dealing as they do in branded goods – promote, merchandise, advertise and train continually to boost consumer awareness and retail store traffic.

“Partnering is a catch-all phrase,” says Laurence R. Grunstein, president of Citizen Watch Co. of America. “It’s more than partnership denotes. It means we’re going into business together and we both will make a profit. It’s good communication and synergy in all matters of business.”

Watch companies are so proactive for two key reasons: their product demands it and the race for market share and showcase space compels competitive firms to offer the best overall package they can to retailers.

But when the money is on the line, which companies will come through for their retailers? Is “partnership” a legitimate bond between watch retailers and their suppliers or just a 1990s buzz word? Most say it’s a legitimate description. It depends on who you talk to.

McCarver & Moser’s dire situation made the store owners simultaneously more skeptical and more appreciative of the term partnership. It was an extreme case where retailer-vendor relationships were put to the ultimate test.

How do you continue to sell a store that’s not paying its bills? How can you trust a watch vendor who drops your store like a football punt? It’s a very sensitive situation. Many vendors and retailers come through with flying colors. Others drop the ball.

Build relationships. The tighter the handshake, the tighter the partnership – and the better the success rate. Retailers name some firms consistently as true partners, be it from the advertising, merchandising, training or courtesy angle.

McCarver & Moser says brands that went beyond the call of duty for its store included Cartier, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Chopard and Hublot.

“It was a dilemma for our watch vendors,” says McCarver. “It wasn’t easy for them to be loyal to us because we were slow in paying. They could have closed us down any minute, but they kept shipping us. You find out quickly who your friends are.”

“It’s more than a partnership, it’s a marriage,” says Calvin Kagan of Chicago-based Smart Jewelers. “If you do what you promise, they do what they promise. It’s give and take. If suppliers are making money off you and you do what you promise, they treat you like a king or queen.”

In short, cliché though it is, honesty is the best policy in a watch partnership, the foundation on which a strong watch business is built. What’s very important is that both parties are headed in the same direction. No one wants a head-on collision on that two-way street.

Marketing power. True partners work together beyond the merchandise. Watch company marketing efforts – in advertising, point-of-purchase displays, in-store signage, support materials and event sponsorships – are designed to build traffic and sales. They’re doing just that, boosting jewelers’ watch counter action and profits to new levels.

Creative retailers who devise promotion ideas beyond the co-op budget can get more bang for their bucks.

“Whenever a watch company gives you co-op, retailers should be appreciative because they don’t have to do that,” says Gary Gordon, president of Samuel Gordon Jewelers, Oklahoma City, Okla. “A lot of retailers take that for granted.

“Watch companies are the absolute kings of doling out co-op. They also offer seminars that are above and beyond what is necessary. They offer consumer support materials which are unsurpassed.”

They also can offer some pretty creative marketing ideas. Breitling, for example, takes watch warranty information and sends chocolates to its retailers’ customers as a thank you. The company also updates its retailers on the publicity its watches are generating, both on celebrity wrists and in fashion and entertainment magazines. These figures and facts are great ammunition for sales associates to use with the customer.

For Gordon’s store, Raymond Weil offered 40,000 fliers on Parsifal and Tango product for a nationwide campaign. The store paid only for insertion costs.

“You can’t be bashful,” Gordon says. “We call our vendors and say, ‘Do you have any tags available?’ And I’ve never been turned down by a watch company when I call for participation in a community event – where we give away a watch as a raffle item or door prize. All watch companies will do it if you present a plan and make them understand why it’s a nice opportunity.”

Watch boutiques are another partnering strategy. Companies who value impressive presentation of their product often are generous in opening their wallets with support. One jeweler who doesn’t want his name used says Rolex paid for a large marquis sign outside his store. That same jeweler says Tag Heuer footed a $7,000 bill for new showcases and Breitling coughed up big dollars for a lighted in-store picture-frame-type billboard where watch graphics are rotated.

Customer service. Some watches sell themselves, but they don’t service themselves – which makes company service and response critical. Unfortunately, service, or more correctly lack of it, is one of retailers’ biggest complaints. It can make or break a watch brand in the jeweler’s heart. If a salesperson is happy with a watch and its supplier, the name could be on the tip of his or her tongue whenever the right customer comes along. But if the salesperson’s unhappy, it’s an entirely different story.

“Partnerships translate to increased sales,” says Hugh Glenn, president of Glenn Corp., distributor of Cyma watches. “Jewelers express to me that they want to sell products of a company that stands behind them and takes care of the problems they might have. If they think the company doesn’t care about them, they are certainly not as interested in selling the products.”

There’s nothing like a satisfied customer. To win that satisfaction, each department in a supplier’s operation must be tapped into the partnership culture. It’s not enough to have a good relationship between the store owner and the salesperson who comes calling.

The best suppliers employ a long-term strategy of sell through, rather than sell in. Overselling a retailer is potentially worse than underselling. Retailers are particularly cautious of supplier reps who say, “Here’s what I want to sell you this year,” according to Ed Bridge of Seattle-based Ben Bridge Jeweler. Sell in has to reflect sell through, he says.

“It shouldn’t be how many watches I can sell to meet a quota, but how I can help the retailer make a profit,” says Steven P. Kaiser, outgoing president of Baume & Mercier, who plans to implement the same service principles at his new company. “It means looking at the other person’s business almost like it’s your own.

“That could mean sometimes saying to a retailer, ‘Don’t buy.’ Or taking back watches. Or sending a watch out on a Saturday to get it to the client. Or doing something unorthodox to make their customer happy, like meeting the jeweler and his customer in the airport during a layover to fix a watch. Sometimes it may even mean breaking your own company rules.”

Repairs are a big problem. Many watch companies operate their service centers as a profit center. But Roven Dino’s Michael Feeley says this de-emphasizes the service aspect and leads to repairs that take up to two months and beyond. He says swift repair is the only option, and not necessarily for profit.

“When a watch comes back for repair, if we don’t fix it within 10 days, we send them a new watch,” Feeley says.

Don’t alienate partners. Watch suppliers and retailers must be wary of behavior that can damage or destroy relationships. Compromise is the best way to survive.

“I’ve never had a problem,” says Smart Jewelers’ Kagan. “If you knock softly, someone will say, ‘Who’s there?’ But if you knock loudly, they say, ‘What the hell do you want?’”

Unscrupulous retailers have burned plenty of watch suppliers in recent years. As a result, some companies have tightened up their partnership policies to make sure retailers don’t abuse the privilege of selling certain lines. Generally retailers accept the limits, but some say policies have become too restrictive.

“A lot of watch companies tend to make rules to restrict the occasional abuser,” says Andrew Johnson, president of Diamond Cellar, Columbus, Ohio. “I refer to it as ‘jumping through hoops.’ Some policies are so negative and complex that they restrict business – all because of what one store may have done once. So then we’re responsible for what a bad retailer may have done.”

Johnson cites one example of restrictive policy: return authorization numbers, where a retailer can’t send a watch repair job to the factory without first getting a return authorization number from that company.

On the flip side, retailers rate as true partners companies who toughened up their policies to protect a brand’s long-term integrity. Many cite Rolex’s and Cartier’s cutbacks in distribution some years back as prime examples. This strategy allowed retailers to gain more profit while cutting down on a growing discounting problem.

Retailers have responsibilities, too. They have to protect the long-term integrity of a brand by not discounting heavily or selling limited-distribution watches to non-authorized jewelers. They also must show commitment to particular brands by offering proper representation of the line. Watch suppliers demand this. Suppliers also expect the retailer to provide product training, advertising, knowledgeable salespeople and good display to honor his or her end of the partnership.

“We as retailers need to pay attention and take some accountability,” says Johnson. “Many of us want to memo everything, working on [watch companies’] money. And when it doesn’t sell, we want to sell it back to them. Then we bitch because we didn’t make enough money on it. Well, what do they need us for?

“You’ll hear a lot of whining and crying from people who don’t know how to run their businesses efficiently. We’re making money. We have responsibility, too.”

Loyalty is what watch partnerships are all about – through good times and bad times. It’s like a marriage, hopefully for better than for worse.