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Luxury watchmakers to expand affordable offering

High-end watchmakers have signalled a shift in strategy with an expanded range of more affordable products to counter the most severe downturn the industry has faced since the 2008-09 financial crisis, executives at a watch fair in Geneva said.

The industry is having to adapt to a market with fewer Russian, Middle Eastern and Chinese buyers than a year ago, executives said, feeling the combined effects of record low oil prices and signs of economic weakness in China.

Cartier, Richemont’s leading brand and main source of profit, is presenting a higher than usual number of models at more accessible prices at this week’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), the industry’s first event of the year.

Among them is Cartier’s new Drive model, a steel-cased men’s watch priced at a little more than 5,000 euros ($5,430). Previously, Cartier would only offer new models in gold and leather, with prices starting at more than 10,000 euros, before offering them in more affordable versions.

Sister brand Piaget, the timepieces of which generally start no lower than 10,000 euros, launched a women’s line starting at just over 7,000 euros. Richemont stablemate Montblanc, meanwhile, has invested in a wide range of lower-priced models.

“There is a different price awareness among customers now … and less price elasticity than there used to be,” Piaget Chief Executive Philippe Leopold-Metzger told Reuters at the fair.

“Times are difficult. The market has changed and, in terms of pricing, it has become much more competitive.”

Russian and Middle Eastern customers’ purchasing power has been dented by the slide in oil prices. In China, the luxury sector’s biggest growth engine, demand has slowed down partly because of a drop in the pace of economic growth and a government crackdown on gift-giving and ostentatious spending by civil servants.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong and the United States, two of the world’s biggest luxury markets, have been hit by a sharp drop in Chinese tourist spending.

There has been a gradual erosion in the industry’s global growth since a peak reached at the end of 2012. Swiss watch exports dropped 3.3 percent in the 11 months to last November after two years of modest growth of close to 2 percent.

The downturn has been less painful than in 2008 and 2009, when the Swiss watch industry lost more than 5,000 jobs, said Jean-Daniel Pasche, president of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, though he acknowledged the danger that market conditions could worsen.

“Looking at this year, much will depend on how the geopolitical situation evolves,” Pasche said.

The luxury goods sector is very much tied to tourist flows, but the deadly attacks in Paris last November have deterred many from travelling to Europe, the traditional home market for high-end watches and jewellery.

In recent months, several watch makers have cut jobs, such as Kering’s recently acquired Ulysse Nardin and privately-owned Parimigiani and Christophe Claret.

Piaget closed a boutique in Shanghai last month while Parmigiani said it would cut its number of sales points globally to about 250 from around 300 by the end of the year, including outlets in Russia and Turkey.

Van Cleef & Arpels, one of the fastest-growing jewellery and watch brands within the Richemont group, said it had also felt a slowdown in Hong Kong, Macao and the United States.

“We have been impacted like everybody else as the feeling of confidence has been shaken,” Van Cleef & Arpels Chief Executive Nicolas Bos told Reuters.

Cartier, Drive de Cartier

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