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Buying Luxury Watches For The Busy Man

Some of the best-known online retailers include Tourneau and Saks Fifth Avenue. And some watch brands, like Rado and Bulgari, also sell through their own sites. Many others, however, such as Patek Philippe, Breguet, A. Lange & Söhne, Audemars Piguet and Rolex, refuse to sell online, either on their own sites or those of authorized dealers.

The reasoning? They’ve spent decades or longer building distribution networks and don’t want to squander that effort. They also believe buying a watch should be a special, emotional experience—one that requires a real-world environment where a customer can speak with a salesperson, try on a variety of watches and leave with the winner on his wrist. I have always purchased new watches in stores. I imagine the feeling I have coming home with a new timepiece is similar to the rush our prehistoric ancestors felt when returning after a successful hunt.

More caveats: First, there simply aren’t that many authorized online sellers. If you Google a watch model, a number of sites pop up, but most fall into the dodgy “gray market” category, sometimes associated with stolen watches or timepieces whose warranties won’t be honored. So, tread carefully and buy only from authorized dealers or brands. At reputable sites—like Cartier’s or menswear e-tailer Mr Porter—online selection can be limited. Cartier doesn’t sell its very high-end watches online. And while Mr Porter has a well-edited selection, you’ll find more options in stores.

Yet Mr Porter is worth exploring. The site is an official partner for several brands, including IWC Schaffhausen, Bremont, Oris, Zenith and Junghans and has seen success selling watches online. Toby Bateman, Mr Porter’s managing director, believes that’s due to the way their customers—mostly affluent, busy men—shop. “A lot of men will research to a large extent before they press the button on a purchase,” said Mr. Bateman. When they finally buy, he added, the purchase is often made using the Mr Porter app on a smartphone between meetings. They don’t have time for brick-and-mortar stores.

For brands, one advantage of selling online is the ability to reach a younger customer. As such, some have used the internet as a marketing tool—teaming up with a high-traffic watch website to sell a limited-edition timepiece.

In 2012, online watch magazine Fratello Watches started running an editorial feature known as “Speedy Tuesday” focused on the Omega Speedmaster chronograph. In January, the site announced a limited-edition Speedmaster ($6,500) to celebrate Speedy Tuesday’s fifth anniversary. Another editorial site, Hodinkee, partnered with Vacheron Constantin on a limited edition chronograph, priced at $45,000, inspired by a 1950s model. With both initiatives, customers requested the watch on the editorial site and were contacted by the brands to confirm the order. The brands handled the transactions and delivery.

The results? In 4 hours, 15 minutes and 43 seconds, all 2,012 Speedy Tuesday Speedmasters were ordered. It took 30 minutes to sell all 36 of the Vacheron Constantin chronographs. Impressive numbers. We are bound to see more of these partnerships. Said Raynald Aeschlimann, CEO and president of Omega, which does not sell on its own site and allows only a few authorized dealers to sell online, “It’s a new way for the people who are very interested in our watches to connect to us.” For his part, Stephen Pulvirent, managing editor and director of operations at Hodinkee, confirmed that the site is working on similar projects.

But we’re far from seeing a rush to get online. One hundred thirty-eight year-old watch retailer Wempe, which doesn’t sell on its website, recently more than doubled the size of its store on Fifth Avenue in New York. “Luxury shopping should be a pleasure,” said Wempe president Ruediger Albers, “not just a point and click and that’s the end of it.”