Blink and you’ll miss it. Instead of the usual shop window filled with luxury watches, the only visible evidence of Audemars Piguet’s new presence in London’s Bond Street is a brass plaque and a small flag.
Tapping into the value of discretion that is inherent in the concept of luxury, this is more private members’ club than conventional watch store. Wealthy customers invited to the venue for dinner or drinks will find plasma screens and deep leather armchairs, with few watches on display at any given time.
An extension of the trend towards so-called experiential luxury, Audemars Piguet House is part of a broader effort among brands to get closer to their best clients. And for some watchmakers, it is more appealing to immerse customers solely in their brand than it is to offer them a share of shelf space alongside rivals in high-end retailers such as Watches of Switzerland and Wempe.
“We want to build long-term relationships with our clients rather than have something simply transactional,” says Daniel Compton, country general manager for Audemars Piguet in the UK. “We’re also developing more control over our distribution rather than relying on partners.”
Fans of the brand can dine on the culinary creations of chefs such as Jason Atherton, and the venue will host other events themed around sports and music. Mr Compton is dismissive of what he sees as the halfhearted gesture of a tired-looking bar with dusty spirit bottles often seen in luxury brands’ stores. Here, waiting staff have been recruited from the high-end hospitality industry. “They’ll be able to mix you a proper cocktail,” he enthuses.
Audemars Piguet will retain its presence in multi-brand stores, but wants to develop monobrand outlets as part of its distribution model. Ecommerce, it says, remains a secondary channel to physical retail. However, it will be trialling digital channels for its aftersales service from next year.
A string of other watch brands are ramping up the immersive factor in physical retail. Cartier’s flagship store on New Bond Street — reopened at the end of last year — is an effort, it says, to “nurture long-lasting relationships with the maison’s customers”.
The brands’ presence supports their overall image in the UK market, which is good for all
Its various salons are intended to appeal to the personal styles of different clients. “Our most significant change is The Residence, a by-appointment-only entertaining space on the second floor of the boutique,” says Laurent Feniou, managing director at Cartier UK. Here, customers will find a sitting room, a dining room, a bar, a fully functioning kitchen, a boudoir and marble bathroom. “This,” he adds, “is designed to be your home away from home.”
Chopard’s newly reopened Bond Street boutique is also channelling the luxury abode vibe and “is designed like a residence where its customers naturally feel at home”, the company says. In a nod to its location, the decor draws on the design themes of the traditional Pall Mall club, with vintage parquet flooring and deep sofas.
“Committed to a long-term strategy of reducing our points of sale, we wish to concentrate our distribution network on boutiques that perfectly embody the spirit of our maison so as to offer our clients optimal hospitality,” says Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, Chopard’s co-president.
Last summer, LVMH brand Hublot opened a store in New Bond Street with a VIP suite on the first floor. Panerai’s first standalone store in the UK, meanwhile, includes a VIP area for discreet consultations and direct access to one of its watchmakers.
Richard Mille’s recently opened Old Bond Street boutique allows it to showcase timepieces in an environment that the company feels it has more control over versus a multi-brand store.
Again, its aim is to recreate the atmosphere of a members’ club with, in this case, a walk-in wine cellar and a cigar cabinet, as well as a library of art books. The brand also allows clients to observe one of Richard Mille’s watchmakers at work inside a glass-enclosed workshop.
So are multi-brand retailers worried about individual watchmakers trying to redefine the customer experience? “Not really,” says Brian Duffy, chief executive at Watches of Switzerland. “The brands’ presence on Bond Street supports their overall image in the UK market, which is good for all.”
The multi-brand retailer is expanding its franchise of single-brand stores in the UK and US that it operates on behalf of watch names. This, it argues, provides the prominence that brands covet, enabling stores to be rolled out more easily.
As high-end watchmakers target closer relationships with their most valuable customers, the ability to curate their own physical spaces becomes an ever more critical element of their strategies.