Picture this: you’ve been eyeing that luxury watch for a while, and after a few seasons of waiting, you’re finally ready to get it. You excitedly enter the store – credit card in hand – but to your surprise, they tell you that you can’t just walk in and buy what you want.
“The watch isn’t here yet,” the store clerk explains, “but we can add you to our waitlist.” Even then, they add, that’s not a guarantee you’ll eventually get the watch.
If you’re new to buying luxury watches, this might come as a shock. But, if you’ve been collecting timepieces, this might have become a fact of life.
This is especially true if you’re buying any of the Big Four watch brands – Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille – who dominate today’s high-end collecting landscape. All privately owned, these brands maintain low production numbers despite increasing demand, to uphold quality and exclusivity. The result is often a long, long time of waiting.
So, how do you get that watch without having to wait forever? Enter, the pre-owned watch market.
Beating the waitlist
In the mid-2010s, half a decade following the global recession, it was still common for authorized dealers to have sufficient stock of best-selling models. But, with the growth of taste-making websites, fan-run forums, Instagram watch communities, and celebrity endorsements, it’s easy to see just how tempting it has become to own the hottest timepiece.
These days, it’s not uncommon for the waiting period to take up to 4 years, with no guarantee you will actually receive the watch at the end of the painstaking waiting period.
In fact, frustration has reached fever pitch, that even the typically secretive Rolex had to release a statement recently, explaining that shortage is not a strategy on their part. The manufacture added that while it cannot fully meet the existing demand, they are working to increase their production without sacrificing quality.
This uncertainty has caused buyers to turn to the secondary market, which isn’t bogged down by manufacturers’ limited supply.
At SwissWatchExpo, a pre-owned luxury watch retailer based in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s common for customers to walk in and look for a watch that they failed to buy at an authorized dealer. Hot commodities like the steel Rolex Submariner are almost impossible to obtain at an AD, while the Atlanta retailer has close to 80 of them – in stock, and ready to ship.
By giving people a chance to purchase their desired watch, the pre-owned watch market has made great strides towards general acceptance among watch enthusiasts in the recent years.
Spoilt for choice
Not only has the second-hand luxury watch market gone mainstream, it is also growing rapidly. According to a report published by McKinsey & Company, it is set to become the watch and jewelry industry’s fastest-growing segment, estimated to reach $29 to $32 billion in sales by 2025. (McKinsey Report)
What’s also driving buyers to embrace the pre-owned luxury watch market is the wide variety of watches available. While authorized dealers only carry the current collection from watch brands, going pre-owned means you have a much wider selection to explore – from vintage models and discontinued styles, to limited and special editions.
That said, buying pre-owned doesn’t always mean buying an old watch. Many people will purchase a new watch and choose to sell it shortly after for several reasons. This means there are current edition watches in the secondary market that are being sold unused and in their original packaging.
These factors open you up to a greater range of models, eras, and price points to choose from.
If you’re starting your collection, this means you can enter the market more quickly. If you’re a seasoned collector, it means being able to trade up faster, or acquiring your grail watch sooner.
Shopping with confidence
Collectors are also buying pre-owned watches with more confidence.
Gone are the days when buying a second-hand watch meant gambling with the risks associated with online marketplaces, where dealers can just sell watches unchecked. Once the playground of private dealers and small-scale retailers, the pre-owned watch market now has an increasing number of trustworthy and transparent digital retailers.
This boom in pre-owned watches is driven by upscale luxury watch retailers who have both skillfully managed e-commerce businesses, and strategic brick-and-mortar stores in key cities worldwide. In addition to reselling watches, they also buy and do trade-ins, giving their customers equity in their selection.
To gain their customer’s trust, SwissWatchExpo, for one, puts a premium on transparency.
“About 98% of the watches on our website are also in our showroom, so the site is a mirror image of our inventory and what is in the show cases,” says Eugene Tutunikov, CEO of SwissWatchExpo.
Their Buckhead, Atlanta showroom functions as a distribution center for its e-commerce business, so “browsing the website is like stepping into the showroom and checking out the showcases.”
To further reassure buyers, SwissWatchExpo offers an 18-month warranty on their pre-owned watches, and ship watches in what the industry calls “like new” condition.
“We select only the highest quality watches within the pre-owned watch market, and we inspect and service all the watches before we list them for sale,” Tutunikov explains.
The Atlanta retailer has set itself apart from the pack with a state-of-the-art service center, where highly trained watchmakers authenticate and service hundreds of watches a week, as part of their fully-integrated operation.
“We do all the work in-house, which includes authenticating, refinishing, servicing, sales, marketing, and operations. By doing this,” he continues, “we can ensure the quality and intrinsic value of the timepiece the customer receives. Our goal is to get it as close in form and function to a new watch as we can possibly get it.”
Fast shipping and easy returns are also often part of the deal, giving the buyer even more peace of mind.
While many industries were hit by COVID-19, the pandemic had quite the opposite effect on the pre-owned watch market – in fact, resale platforms became more popular than ever. Given that most of them are online, lockdowns had little to no effect on the way they operate.
Which brings us to yet another benefit of buying a pre-owned watch: with it comes the convenience of ordering straight from your own home. Many luxury watch brands still do not sell their watches online, and customers are still required to visit the showroom to inspect the watch and make their purchase.
While there remains some reluctance with buying online, pre-owned watch e-tailers were able to operate without the usual constraints of traditional retail.
For Tutunikov, it’s all about finding a way to meet clients’ needs remotely. “Our business never closed, as the state of Georgia classified e-commerce businesses as essential,” he says, “but since we still couldn’t accept local customers, we found a way to support their needs through technology.”
During lockdown, many of their customers enjoyed FaceTime virtual appointments. “Many of our clients, even local ones, have been taking advantage of our ability to do a phone or online chat consultation, and even do a Facetime appointment, to discuss the watches before making the final purchase,” said Tutunikov.
“They also get to meet people on our team and take a brief tour of our facilities – all done virtually. For many of our clients, this is an experience similar to walking into our showroom and one they really appreciate.”
All about value
While the intentions behind buying pre-owned watches have evolved, one of its main draws is still the significant discount one can enjoy over retail prices.
Buying a fine timepiece is a serious investment, and purchasing a pre-owned watch gives you all the benefits of owning a luxury timepiece while enjoying a good deal. Just like cars, watches take a certain level of depreciation once they are taken out of the showroom. When you buy your watch pre-owned, you avoid taking this hit.
This is what more and more buyers are beginning to realize: that pre-owned watches, both older or current models, can be bought in “like new” condition and for a substantial price cut.
While the growing popularity of pre-owned watches have driven up prices for more in-demand models, most of the products can be enjoyed at lower price points.
With all these benefits, it’s no surprise that customers are coming in droves. Whereas the watch category typically has a largely male and older customer base, the perks of buying pre-owned has opened the industry to female consumers, younger segments, and a generation of new watch enthusiasts who are used to buying things online.
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