Why People Buy Watches
People buy everything – from toasters to cars and, of course, timepieces – for every kind of reason.
Here I consult three of the savviest watch retailers I know to help explain the behavior patterns of customers considering a watch purchase.
Ray Grenon, owner of Grenon’s of Newport on the United States’ east coast, offers deep insight from his sophisticated clientele most interested in niche and independent brands.
Armand Johnston of Govberg Watches, on the other hand, caters to a mainstream audience that gravitates toward the bigger names.
Thess Guong and Dru Brammer of Morgan’s Jewelers in Torrance, California offers a nice mix of big names and mid-size brands. Both are students of customer motivation.
Buyers’ behaviors inevitably lead to predictable watch choices – most often, the right choice for the individual at the time. Some of the reasons for choosing one watch over another will surprise you; some you may find counter-intuitive.
Here’s what our expert panel told us.
The first choice is often the final choice
Customers of Grenon’s of Newport often enter the shop on impulse. They want to see the newest, most interesting collections. Ray Grenon says that for these sophisticated niche and independent brands, about 80 percent of the time the first piece that grabs a buyer’s attention is the one they leave with.
Govberg Watches’ Johnston, an authorized retailer for 50 brands, sees this tendency in the store more as a consultative selection process that is guided by Govberg’s staff. However, for online sales, “It is almost a 100 percent slam dunk that online buyers will go with their very first choice no matter how many other options they see.”
Finding justification for buying a watch
Several justifications pop into a consumer’s head that can rationalize a watch purchase. Here are the four most popular according to our panel.
- A replacement for a lost watch
- A gift to a loved one
- A keepsake intended for the next generation
- It marks an achievement, a victory, a milestone
Johnston adds, “Many customers have always wanted a particular piece. Others need to add a dress watch, a sports watch, or a different color watch to round out their wardrobe.”
For serious collectors, the reasons for yet another watch are equally justifiable. “Collectors are compelled to fill an absence in their display cases,” Grenon says. “Maybe with a first tourbillon or a first rose gold watch with a black dial.” The list of collector justifications is long; the differences between pieces in a carefully curated collection often laughably minor to the unschooled.
Self-image as a behavior driver
Each of our expert panel members felt that accurately matching the watch with the wearer’s self-image is critical. Regardless of function and all the other needs a particular watch may fulfill, if its brand name is not of a sufficient perceived value it won’t make the final cut.
“The watch must parallel its wearer in every important way,” Grenon says. Consistency with self-image seems among the most important. Thess Duong of Morgan’s Jewelers adds, “Sometimes the person who buys the piece is not the one who’ll be wearing it. This can be tricky, especially for couples buying for their opposite. It’s important to choose a brand that matches the wearer’s self-image and not just the buyer’s. There needs to be a three-way match: the buyer, the wearer, and the brand.”
Johnston of Govberg has spotted what he thinks is a trend toward the less flashy, but still within upscale brands. “A good example is the Rolex Yacht-Master 40 in Everose gold with an Oysterflex bracelet. The buyer may want to stay with the Rolex brand and the statement it makes about their sophistication and taste. Yet he or she may not wish to wear all that gold. This relatively new addition to the Rolex lineup nicely solves the conundrum in an understated way compared to others in the Rolex lineup like the Skydweller in Everose gold.”
According to Grenon of Newport, only about 20 percent of his customers carefully inspect the entire inventory. Those who do appreciate hands-on time with certain pieces and learning the stories behind the brands. Hearing a brand’s story from someone with Grenon’s experience (he began watch collecting at age 13) is compelling. “Customers often develop an appreciation for a particular brand. Sometimes it’s a special feature of a watch within a brand’s collection that moves them.” With such affinity for a particular brand, it’s not much of a stretch to completing the purchase.
Thess Duong of Morgan’s sees a brand name watch as a contributing factor to the wearer’s status. “People are judged within a few seconds of their economic status based on first impressions. Assessment begins at the top: nice haircut, suit or outfit, watch (name any top brand), shoes. Parts that don’t match or are inconsistent with one another raise a question.”
Duong makes a good point. Many people want to fit into a particular social, economic, or business strata. Wearing an appropriate watch brand helps cement their places in that slot. Conversely, a watch brand that is either way above or below that strata is inconsistent and will beg for explanation.
Lesser-known brands driving behavior
According to Grenon, individualists see themselves as making studied, well-considered decisions based on their own analysis, not anyone else’s. The consensus seems to be that the brand is of only slightly lesser importance in the individualist’s decision but for the opposite reason. A brand’s attraction for an individualist is precisely because it is lesser known and not seen everyday on every wrist.
These people may know the entire story of a brand and its struggles to conquer whatever technological achievement the piece attains. Perhaps it’s Geoffrey Roth’s intricate case engraving or Bovet’s case-strap architecture. Maybe it’s the one-of-a-kind engineering in MB&F’s Legacy Machines. This doesn’t mean that lesser-known brands reside exclusively at the top of the price structure. Three other popular choices of individualists according to the panel are Azimuth, L. Kendall, and SevenFriday among many others.
Regardless, the individualists often develop an affinity for their favorite brands precisely because they are rare.
“Such connoisseurs want their watch brand to make a specific statement to those in the know,” Armand Johnston says. “Especially if it’s an uncommon brand. A lesser-known watch brand subtly conveys one’s taste in a way that resonates with those educated few who will appreciate it the most.”
Age influences behavior
I profiled three typical buyers and asked my expert panel to identify the brand each was most likely to select. Here’s what they came up with:
- Age 25-45: on his/her way up, active lifestyle:
- TAG Heuer for the brand name
- Ball Watch for the “night life”
- Nomos for the minimalist styling
- Grand Seiko for the fit and finish
- Middle age: 45-65: successful, comfortable with his/her achievements but with still more to accomplish:
- Rolex and Panerai for the brand
- Alexander Shorokhoff
- Ulysse Nardin
- Audemars Piguet
- Vaucheron Constantin
- Older: over 65; at the apex of his/her career, wants to relax and enjoy life:
- Patek Philippe
- Laurent Ferrier
Of course there are exceptions. People’s tastes very often range outside the profile any observer may ascribe to them. Certainly each brand works very hard and spends millions positioning itself to appeal to a target demographic. And that influence figures in our panel’s results.
Watch components also influence behavior
During my research for this article I drilled down into the watch components themselves to see if they might offer reasons for people’s behavior in choosing one watch over another. I looked at watch casings, size, dial, complications, straps, and bracelets.
What is it about the case that attracts a certain buyer’s attention? According to Armand Johnston at Govberg, “For some it’s that flash of yellow or rose gold. For others it’s the subtleness of black ceramic where only those who know watches will appreciate the case material.”
Then there’s steel. Everyone loves steel. Indeed, Rolex is currently taking strategic advantage of steel as it rolls out its new Sky-Dweller. This move from exclusively precious metals to steel dropped the price point into a range that’s more affordable for a larger market segment.
According to Thess Duong at Morgan’s, the aftermarket price ranges as much as $10,000 over the authorized dealer’s price due to the limited release demand.
Platinum is a different animal. From even a short distance this precious metal can look like white gold or (gasp) steel. Says Armand Johnston, “The individual who buys platinum wants the cognoscenti to know the value of what he or she is wearing. They can tell by the metal’s luster as easily as by the brand and the watch itself.”
Johnston happens to like carbon fiber and ceramic. “Many buyers could choose carbon fiber or ceramic just as easily as steel. It’s sporty and expensive. It’s different and a conversation starter. The material is easy to wear. Yet most buyers think of their carbon fiber or ceramic piece as just a weekend watch.”
I found that watch size (measured by diameter) can be a factor in identifying the reasons why someone chooses one watch over another. Generally, sizes 43 mm and over go to those who either are, or perceive themselves as, athletic. They may have larger wrists able to accommodate a bigger watch.
Dru Brammer, also of Morgan’s, has found what he thinks is a consistency in the physical stature of his customers versus the size of the watches they chose. “Watches of 43 mm and above go to men 6’2 and 250 pounds and over. Less than 30 mm are almost always women. Some women are gravitating to 40 mm as a fashion statement.”
From my own observations I’d say that if a person really likes a watch, that’s the watch he or she will choose regardless of wrist size.
The mid-size, 40 to 43 mm, seems to be the most popular size according to my panel. There are some sporty watches in this range — Omega’s Speedmaster Professional is 42 mm—as well as some dress watches. Frédérique Constant likes to play in this size range for some of its collection.
The smaller range — less than 40 mm — is now seeing a resurgence in popularity, especially among younger buyers. These tend to be lighter on the wrist and thinner. They don’t offer the distraction of the big pieces. Nomos Glashütte is very active in the smaller size range.
The consensus seems to be that the individual who dislikes clutter and values efficiency gravitates to a utilitarian dial; he or she wants the time at a glance and chooses a watch for its function over form and appearance.
On the other hand a large market segment wants a complicated dial. The more gadgets the better. For such buyers, a busy dial may tell others something about their capacity to decipher and digest all that information.
But, honestly, how often does the average desk pilot need to compute fuel consumption on their way to the men’s room using their Breitling Navitimer?
Dial colors also factor into choice behavior. The honored standards are white, ivory, and black. The first two, white and ivory, say something about adherence to custom.
My panel tells me that those who gravitate to white and ivory colors tend to appreciate the classics and respect tradition. Black dials are both formal and hip at the same time. Blue is the next most popular alternative; it is just different enough from black to avoid scoffing at tradition. Yet at the same time it softly whispers nonconformist.
Love them or hate them, complications are interesting.
You may have heard that people buy a watch with complications that are never, ever used. These are most often the timing functions on a chronograph, and I’ll get to them shortly. However, some complications are used often and make for an important part of the purchase decision.
A second hand is indeed a complication, but it’s one that happens to be so common that it’s often not considered a complication at all. For a diver’s watch, a second hand is essential to confirm the watch is still running. The date window is also important for many people.
On to the more esoteric. Many people who frequently travel between time zones or who have clients in different time zones need that intel at a glance. For them, a watch without a GMT function or a world timer is a deal breaker. And don’t forget that such a complication also tells others just how much the world demands of the wearer’s time.
As for the chronograph function, according to Thess Duong, “People seldom use their stopwatch functions.” The rest of my expert panel agrees with her; none have a client who uses this complication on a regular basis. Chronographs seem to offer something interesting and different but less often meet an essential need — almost like a solution in search of a problem to solve.
Leather strap or metal bracelet?
According to those interviewed, people preferring a leather strap seem to gravitate to traditional pieces; many finer dress watches have a leather strap. “For some reason I’ve found lawyers gravitate to leather straps,” Duong says. “People who prefer a metal bracelet seem concerned for the security of their watch. Metal is stronger than leather hence it’s less likely to fail, losing the watch.”
Deployant clasp or buckle? Buckles are more traditional; deployant clasps produce less wear and tear on the strap. The choice seems to depend on what the buyer is used to. If the buyer already have a metal bracelet with a deployant clasp, then the panel believes the buyer is more likely to seek out a leather strap also with a deployant clasp on another watch. Familiarity seems to drive this behavior.
The most predictable behaviors
Like priests standing confession, my authorized dealers interviewed have heard it all and are adept at separating wheat from chaff. Their consensus as to why people choose the watches they do seems to be:
- A well-chosen watch satisfies a need for status recognition.
- A wristwatch immediately communicates a specific and intended bit of insight into its wearer for those who know what to look for.
- Just like vanity license plates, people want to control the message; a well-chosen watch does this very precisely.
- A watch provides a useful link to tradition. Cell phones go dead, get lost, go out of range, or may just be unavailable in a pocket or purse. Not so a wristwatch: it’s always there, faithfully ticking away just waiting for its chance to serve.
So we don’t overthink this, there’s another behavioral theory brought forward by Ray Grenon. “Sometimes choosing a particular watch has little to do with any psychological need or linkage to the past. Sometimes people who can afford it buy a watch for nothing other than good old fashion retail therapy — something to brighten their day!”
Adding to the simplest reasons for watch buying behavior, Armand Johnston at Govberg says, “Often customers are just bored with their present watch and want a change.”