In popular culture, the future is often portrayed as fast, sleek and high-tech — qualities not typically associated with the Swiss watch trade, which takes pride in making elegant analog devices using laborious, often centuries-old, techniques.
Nevertheless, many watchmakers are finally ready to greet the future. To explore what that might mean for them in the coming decade, The New York Times asked three experts — a specialist in consumer psychology, a retail futurist and the editor of a luxury watch publication — how buying and owning a fine timepiece will change, and the issues that will preoccupy watch consumers. Their answers have been edited and condensed.
Peter Noel Murray
Principal of a New York-based research and consulting practice specializing in emotion and behavior change.
How has the pandemic affected the consumer psyche?
The mind of the consumer has focused on uncertainty, vulnerability, the need for stability — that’s what’s driving all the conversations I’m having now.
People are asking themselves — largely driven by the pandemic, but compounded by the social unrest that’s going on — where are we headed? There are concerns about the economic future. People are reeling about what happens to jobs, local businesses. They are yearning for situations that are less disruptive and more predictive, so they can start to feel back in control of their lives.
From a strategic perspective, you’d better be talking about factors like authenticity and truth and timelessness — those kinds of constructs always have been an important part of the luxury mind-set, and never more than now.
How should brands be courting customers?
The customer experience is paramount. There needs to be an acknowledgment of how the consumer is feeling. It would be clueless to say, “This is over, let’s go out and party.” The strategy should be to adopt a tonality of understanding and comfort. Hard to explain, but you get the idea. It is more about tone than words.
What other product qualities are consumers interested in?
Design and features are important. But in this environment, investment value — in the sense of buying a product that is holding its value — is another important part. One of the lessons people talk about in my interviews is that they have a yearning to be responsible. We realize how uncertain the world is. All of this changes our mind-set about how secure we feel, where we shop and what we buy. It’s this business of making a responsible choice, as opposed to saying, “This is the latest color.”
Does that mean that desire for classic, vintage-inspired watches will continue at the expense of more avant-garde or contemporary styles?
Contemporary can still appeal as long as it’s positioned in the context of trust, authenticity and, often, timelessness. There needs to be an homage to basic values, because authenticity and truth are an antidote to uncertainty and chaos.
President of research and strategy at New York-based trend consultancy PSFK.
We know the pandemic accelerated the move to digital. What are some less-talked-about changes to retail that are here to stay?
Very relevant to a luxury context is the scheduling of one-on-one appointments — whether that’s a styling consultation or teaching you how to use a product. That can happen in a store, but could also happen online in people’s homes; we’re all on Zoom and FaceTime.
One of the big benefits is suddenly you have this very intimate experience with a customer who’s in their home and you can say, “Show me what’s in your closet.” A lot of retailers are using staff members in a store to do that. They have a product on hand and use the store as a backdrop, and they can begin to use information they have about a customer to make smarter recommendations, and use that experience to complete a purchase or draw them into the store.
At PSFK, you do a lot of research around next-gen omnichannel concepts in which customers have a seamless experience across different “channels,” like social media, phone and in a physical store. What’s the latest?
There’s this idea within the manufacturing space called “digital twins.” It’s a digital version [of a product] that sits online with all the data so if there are glitches or a part is breaking, you can proactively fix things or adjust it. We envision a future where every product has a digital twin that sits in a cloud. You own it and if the item changes hands, it just becomes another way to think about ownership.
Theoretically, it creates a relationship with a brand or a manufacturer so they have the ability to monitor performance. If they notice there’s an issue with a watch — say, it’s losing time — they can proactively say, “Let’s get you set up for a repair appointment at a dealer nearby. We can order the necessary part and prevent you from being without a functioning timepiece for a period of time.” Fixing that problem early on, being proactive about it, is another way to add value to that customer relationship.
How far out is that kind of service?
The technology is in use at some level on a larger scale, in the manufacturing space, where you have these big industrial machines and all these different parts are working in concert with one another and there’s a centralized sensor that’s able to capture all that information and translate it back to A.I. or a piece of machine learning that’s able to check for anomalies.
Having a sensor small enough to fit inside something like a watch and then having some sort of platform to facilitate that, I guess I could envision that happening within the next 15 to 20 years.
What other changes are you seeing?
One of the other interesting things we’ve been paying attention to is luxury as an investment class, or products as asset classes. More nascent are these new platforms that enable incremental ownership in luxury items.
One is called Otis, started by Michael Karnjanaprakorn, who founded [the online learning community] Skillshare. As a company, Otis purchases things like artworks or crazy sneakers, and you, as an individual, can buy shares in those items. It’s the same way the stock market works: Assets either grow in value or decline in value.
Why would someone want to buy a share of a watch?
On the most basic level, people are investing in this stuff because they think it’s going to accrue value and it ties into their passions and interests. If you are a passionate or aspirational fan of watches, yet you can’t afford to buy a Patek Philippe Nautilus, there’s this idea that your knowledge — in the same way someone might be knowledgeable about the stock market — could benefit you financially. It registers you in this community as well. You get to wear the watch once a year or something like that. Or you get access to insider content that’s being shared by the brand.
What do you make of things like digital-only luxury goods and nonfungible token, or NFT, watches?
The idea of the metaverse [shared virtual space] has come to the fore because of the Fortnites and Roblox of the world, where people gather not only to game but to attend Lil Nas X concerts and socialize.
Companies are now creating versions of a product that exist as both physical and digital. Imagine you love Gucci, but you’re 14 — you can’t buy the handbag. But you can buy it for your digital avatar, where you’re spending four hours a day hanging out with your friends. As a way to build affinity and aspirational quality in a consumer, that’s pretty interesting.
Editor in chief of WorldTempus, a Geneva-based watch publication.
The Swiss watch industry has been painfully slow to embrace online. Is that still the case?
Prepandemic, a lot of brands were married to the idea that online is incompatible with the values of luxury watchmaking. “We’re not going to expose ourselves online because you’re not able to fully experience this piece of mechanical beauty” — that’s a philosophy that’s more suitable for an artisanal watchmaker that’s happy and willing to remain small. If you’re interested in your customers, in doing business, you can’t not have a digital presence.
What’s your boldest prediction for the industry in the coming decade?
All the trend analyses I’ve come across point toward greater polarization and narrowing in the market, which basically means that the brands that are already strong will continue to strengthen and that higher-priced watches will become a larger proportion of sales — since consumers tend to shy away from adventurous purchasing in uncertain times, and demand at the very top end of the market is pretty inelastic because of the economic insulation enjoyed by the ultrawealthy.
I do, however, entertain some bold hopes. From a consumer-facing standpoint, I believe that the level of awareness, knowledge and appreciation of watches will increase, because of the ongoing effects of media digitalization and the rise of a consumer audience that has access to more information than ever.
Do you consider any watchmakers to be forward-thinking?
An interesting example is Jacob & Co. Jacob Arabo stepped back from running the company day to day and his son, Benjamin, stepped in. He’s 28 or something insanely young. Benjamin was not always in the family business. He was carving his own career in the tech sphere, but he also consulted for Jacob & Co. As a result, they were one of the first brands to do that intensive online customer outreach that took other brands a lot longer to get started on. What really comes into play is how they’re speaking to the younger generation. Jacob & Co. is far and away the most active luxury watch brand on TikTok.
Do you think the debate around the value of beauty (Swiss watchmaking) vs. utility (Apple Watch) has shifted? How do you see these categories coexisting?
This is a false dichotomy. We should not be making consumers choose between pleasure and convenience.
Why do we think that a utilitarian object cannot simultaneously be beautiful? Montblanc had the right idea some years ago, when they debuted their e-Strap, an electronic module that could be fitted on to a mechanical watch. Never make people choose between A, B, C or D when the best answer is really “All of the above.”