Even before the Christmas tree went up at 124-year-old Bucherer AG in the lakeside town of Lucerne, the Swiss watch boutique was already planning decorations for the year of the snake.
Chinese symbols marking the start of the lunar new year on Feb. 10 will greet the busloads of Asian shoppers who visit Lucerne every day and invite them inside to see watches from TAG Heuer, Rolex and more than 20 other brands.
Less than half of the timepieces bought at the Lucerne store in December may be for Christmas, according to Joerg Baumann, Bucherer’s marketing director. That’s a welcome boon as banks cut jobs and Swiss unemployment hovers at its highest level in 20 months.
“Other parts of the year have caught up” with Christmas, Baumann said, “which is good news for retailers because everyone wants a stable business and not an extremely seasonal one.”
Asian consumers are easing the Swiss watch industry’s reliance on Christmas and offsetting Europe’s slowing economy. While December is still the most important sales period, it’s diminishing in importance and may be surpassed by the Chinese New Year within seven years, said Jean-Claude Biver, chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton (MC) SA’s Hublot watch brand.
“When I started 38 years ago, December and Christmas were 30 percent of the business, but that has weakened as sales have become more and more constant during the 12 months,” Biver said in his office overlooking Lake Geneva and the French Alps. Christmas now accounts for 15 percent to 20 percent of watch industry revenue, he said.
China and Hong Kong make up the biggest market for Swiss timepieces, accounting for 30 percent of exports of the country’s roughly 200 brands in 2011, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. Exports to those two destinations rose 10 percent in the first 10 months of 2012.
Chinese interest in high-end watches remains strong despite concerns about an easing of economic growth, according to Digital Luxury Group. The number of online searches for luxury watch brands in China increased about 40 percent during the first half of the year, the researcher said.
Purchasing watches abroad allows Chinese consumers to sidestep three layers of taxes imposed on watches in China: an 11 percent import duty, a 20 percent tax on high-end watches, and a 17.5 percent value-added tax, according to HSBC.
Cie. Financiere Richemont SA (CFR), the maker of Vacheron Constantin and Cartier watches, said last month that the weakness of the euro was luring more Asians to take vacations in Europe, helping boost revenue in the region.
“Local consumption in Switzerland is not bad and there’s probably even some growth, but the main driver is tourism,” said Patrik Schwendimann, an analyst at Zuercher Kantonalbank.
Bucherer’s six-story flagship in Lucerne gives visitors from China greeting cards in red envelopes called hongbao that are supposed to bring luck. A sign at the entrance lists some of the 20-plus languages spoken by sales staff, while display cabinets describe watch features in Chinese.
To cope with the steady stream of Chinese shoppers, about 30 of the 200-odd staff speak Mandarin. Bucherer also offers Chinese-language lessons for employees, as well as training on how best to interact with Asian shoppers and what the concept of “face” means for them.
Among the key sales periods for Bucherer, which has more than 20 stores in Switzerland, Germany and Austria, are the week around Chinese national day on Oct. 1, as well as Chinese new year in January or February and the Thai new year in April, Baumann said.
“The planning starts one year ahead in our themes and how we decorate the stores,” Baumann said. “People want to know they’re in Switzerland, but it’s a little gesture so they’re aware we know it’s their holiday.”
As many as 3,000 Asian tourists a day visit the Bucherer flagship in Lucerne after sightseeing in the surrounding Alpine landscape. Sales at the shop could reach 1 million Swiss francs ($1.1 million) daily at peak times, said Rene Weber, an analyst at Bank Vontobel in Zurich. The store doesn’t disclose revenue.
“It’s like a machine,” he said. “If a Chinese person goes on a trip to Europe, they tend to start in Italy and end in Paris or London. In between, they usually stop in Switzerland and buy something at Bucherer in Lucerne.”
More than 200,000 visitors from greater China stayed in Lucerne or surrounding area during the first nine months of this year, more than double the number during the same period in 2007, according to the town’s tourism bureau.
The winding streets around Bucherer, lined with ornate, century-old buildings, show the growing importance of Asian tourists. At some watch stores in the area Chinese signs are bigger than those in European languages, and shop windows sometimes display phonetic renderings of brand names in Chinese characters.
Outside Bucherer, Zheng Xianjun takes in views of the bustling town center and lake after spending almost 3,000 francs on a Longines watch for his wife.
“I’m not buying it for any special occasion,” said Zheng, a 40-year-old mobile phone salesman from China’s Guangdong province. “I don’t go abroad all that much and my wife wanted me to get her a watch while I was here.”
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