It was one of the most baffling moments in my life. First of all, I’m not entirely sure how I ended up on stage along with fashion journalism luminary Suzy Menkes, facing every single communication and PR executive in the Richemont Group, owner of watch brands such as Cartier, Vacheron Constantin, A. Lange & Sohne, Panerai, IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Ostensibly, I was there to explain what I thought were some of the more significant evolutions in the way watch brands could reach new demographics. But at some point, I had to stop and ask a question of the audience gathered before me. Clearing my throat, I said, “Look, in 2010, Richemont Group acquired Net-a-Porter, which has been the single biggest engine of change in luxury retail since the last century. Net-a-Porter has demonstrated that consumers are willing to buy high-dollar luxury goods in an editorially rich environment with a well-curated offer on the Internet. Beyond that, this website has created an ease of transaction and a return policy that in many ways makes e-retail more practical and pleasant than brick-and-mortar experiences.
“Yet there is not a single Richemont Group watch offered on either Net-a-Porter or Mr. Porter (it’s the menswear retail version). This is the perfect opportunity to position the luxury wristwatch as a lifestyle accessory and integrate it in new ways. For example, each time Mr. Porter sells a tuxedo, why isn’t it recommending a Piaget Altiplano or a Vacheron Patrimony? You have watches that are genuinely nice, but have not had the traction you wanted with the technical-watch consumer, like the Van Cleef Pierre Arpels, the Ralph Lauren Slim Classique or the majority of the men’s Cartier watches. Instead of trying to win over this watch-geek demographic, why don’t you expose these watches to the significantly bigger lifestyle audience who shop at Mr. Porter? Are you so successful that despite owning the biggest e-commerce platform in the world, you don’t want to use it to sell your own watches?”
My stream-of-consciousness rant was met with uncomfortable silence. Then, suddenly, one brave soul raised his hand and replied. “Do you really think the world is ready to buy luxury wristwatches online?” I paused then said, “I’m going to reply with the following quote. When he was alive, Nick Hayek Sr. the founder of the Swatch Group and the savior of the Swiss watch industry was once asked the somewhat Proustian question, ‘Mr. Hayek, if you have to die one day, how would you want to die?’ Without missing a beat, Hayek replied, ‘In Switzerland — because everything there happens 10 years too late.’ Now, let’s look at what you offer in terms of watches on Net-a-Porter. Bremont? Zenith? Oris? Are you crazy? You own the biggest, most revolutionary, most incredible, world-changing platform for the way people are consuming luxury goods, and you intentionally allow competing brands access to your consumers while you don’t put a single one of your own watches on it? Respectfully, in the terms of a tactical mistake, this is going to go down in history to be as massive of a fuck-up as Custer at Little Bighorn.”
But let’s back up a second here. Maybe I’m biased. Because the thing is, I love e-commerce shopping. Why? For several reasons. First, I’m always on the lookout for obscure goods. However, as I don’t have the luxury of time to fly my ass to Naples holding Aristotelian discourse as I’m bespeaking the world’s most artisanally made umbrella, I would prefer to just click a button and have it sent to my home. Ditto the Kraus hi-performance inverted Ohlins front end for my Harley-Davidson, allowing me to install dual four-piston radial brakes so that I can actually stop and not die whilst riding it. Second, I don’t find the experience of actual shopping rewarding. In fact, I find it profoundly arduous. A total pain in the ass.