November’s Swiss Watch Exports Show That China Is Once Again Red Hot
Originally published by Joe Thompson on Hodinkee.
Swiss watch exports to mainland China jumped 40% in November, leading a Swiss watch recovery that is picking up steam. The total value of Swiss exports jumped 6.3% to CHF1.98 billion ($2.01 billion) in November, according to data released today by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH). October exports were up 9.3%. Swiss watch exports have risen in value for seven consecutive months. (The export data reflects sales from Swiss watch firms to their dealers, not retail sales.)
China’s surge was the largest jump in 30 months, the FH said. It is the latest sign of a new luxury goods boom in China since the Chinese government’s easing of its crackdown on “gift-giving” (i.e., bribery). That crackdown sent the Swiss watch industry into a slump in 2015 and 2016. The slump is now over. Through November, Swiss watch exports are up 2.8% for 2017 to CHF18.2 billion ($18.5 billion).
The China boom has helped this year’s recovery in Hong Kong. Exports there jumped 4.4% in November, the sixth consecutive monthly jump, and are up 5.3% year to date. Hong Kong and mainland China, Switzerland’s first and third largest export markets, are again riding to the Swiss watch industry’s rescue, as they did in 2010, after exports collapsed in the Great Recession of 2009. Other Asian markets are recovering, too. Exports to Singapore, for example, Switzerland’s seventh largest market, are up 10.6% for the year.
While the so-called “Greater China” markets are picking up, other areas of the world are not. The FH characterized the long-awaited recovery as “uneven.” “The main markets for Swiss watch industry exports alternated between strong rises and moderate falls in November,” it said. Of Switzerland’s top 30 markets, which account for more than 90% of sales, 16 were down for the month. Year to date, six of the top 10 markets are still below 2016’s very weak export figures.
Most prominent among them is the United States. Exports were down, albeit slightly, in November (-0.4%). Exports have fallen for nine of the past 11 months and are down 4% year to date. Despite the United States’ growing economy and a booming stock market, Swiss watch sales here are bedeviled by a number of factors. They include the rise of e-commerce (which Swiss luxury brands on the whole have avoided), a glut of luxury watches available online from gray-market dealers, and the decline in traffic in brick-and-mortar retailer stores.
The Middle East is also slumping, the result of generally lower oil prices and an anti-corruption crackdown now underway in Saudi Arabia. It and the United Arab Emirates are Switzerland’s key Middle Eastern markets. The UAE (#10 on Switzerland’s list of top markets) is down 4.1% for the year through November. Saudi Arabia (#13) was down 17.7% in November and is down 6.4% for the year. (Other Middle Eastern markets are very small: Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain rank 23, 24 and 29, respectively.)
It looks like smartwatches are having a tangible impact on the market for lower-priced quartz watches.
At the lower end of the price spectrum, there are signs that smartwatches are hurting Swiss watch sales. The FH did not cite smartwatches, but it did say that Swiss watches with export prices below CHF200 “are in a difficult situation.” Exports of those watches were down 10% in units and 11.3% in value in November, “a substantial fall,” the FH said.
A closer look at the FH data shows that exports of electronic watches through November of this year are down by more than 1 million units, to 15.6 million, a drop of 6.3%. By contrast, unit exports of mechanical watch are up 4.6% over the same period, to 6.59 million pieces. It is something the Swiss need to keep an eye on. Quartz watches account for the lion’s share of Swiss watch volume. Between 2011 and 2015, Switzerland exported more than 20 million quartz watches per year. In 2016, that output fell to 18.4 million, a drop of 9.3%. With quartz watch exports down another 6% this year, the FH is sounding the alarm.
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