Pre-owned luxury watch market in Hong Kong grows slowly, but WatchBox hopes its time has come

Vintage luxury watches are popular in the US, but Hongkongers have long been averse to buying second-hand goods. WatchBox, with its online watch trading platform and a bricks-and-mortar shop, believes it can change opinions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2018, 11:15am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2018, 11:15am

Hong Kong has long prided itself on being the world’s leading market for luxury watches, and despite tough competition from China and the United States, the city still accounts for 13 per cent of Swiss watch sales, according to the latest monthly figures from industry body the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH).

The market for new watches remains strong, but Hong Kong has had a lukewarm relationship with pre-owned timepieces. American “re-commerce” online retailer WatchBox is the latest company hoping to tap into the city’s lust for luxury watches, as well as a more buoyant environment for luxury goods, to change the image of pre-owned watches.

“We are committed to elevating the pre-owned watch perception and experience,” says WatchBox Asia chairman Liam Wee Tay, formerly the owner of the Sincere Watch chain.

WatchBox has found success in the US through its tech-led platform as well as its millennial-focused digital strategy, building followers on its various social media accounts.

Tay says the company’s push into Hong Kong will combine its easy to use e-platform for consumers to buy, sell and trade watches, with a more traditional showroom on Duddell Street, Central, near other luxury watch retailers.

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In Hong Kong, pre-owned watches can be found in abundance up and down Nathan Road in Kowloon, with tourists looking for a bargain, but for the most part the second-hand market is dominated by independent retailers and operates under the radar with little or no advertising, no-frills window displays and an anaemic online presence.

The Hong Kong market in used watches is relatively low-key because of the city’s status as the primary place to buy new watches, with the big Swiss brands using Hong Kong as an Asian or global launch pad for their latest pieces. In addition, the stigma attached to buying used luxury goods has made it difficult for the more professional secondary-market retailers to set up shop in Hong Kong.

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Changing the perception of pre-owned luxury watches has been a slow process.

“Hong Kong is still coming to grips with the idea of ‘vintage’,” says Eric Ku, a US-based vintage watch dealer and owner of high-end e-tailer 10 Past Ten. Ku, who has been supplying Lane Crawford with vintage watches for a number of years, says Hong Kong consumers have traditionally been “obsessed with newness. It’s a cultural thing, this suspicion with second-hand, but people are more comfortable with the idea of ‘vintage’, with its inherent story and rarity.”

Today, Hong Kong consumers, particularly e-commerce-savvy and price-conscious millennials, seem more ready to buy pre-owned products. Online specialists such as Chrono24 and retail apps such as Carousell have helped normalise buying and selling pre-owned watches online.

This shift in consumer thinking has spurred the big Swiss brands to finally accept the benefits of the secondary market for their products. “Second-hand is the next big thing in the watch industry,” Audemars Piguet CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias told Reuters at the SIHH watch fair in Geneva this month, as the company announced plans to test-launch second-hand sales at some of its boutiques before rolling them out worldwide later this year.

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Previously, Swiss watchmakers were loath even to acknowledge the second-hand market, as they feared it would dilute their branding and call into question their premium pricing. But the explosion in the secondary market, said to be worth as much US$5 billion according to some industry estimates, has led to a rethink at the corporate level.

With its expansion into Hong Kong, WatchBox co-CEO Justin Reis is bullish at the prospects of a global market for pre-owned watches. “We see the opportunity to build a US$500 million plus business in the coming years,” he says.