The kind of alternative and offbeat thinking that has made MB&F's horological offerings so exceptional has extended to the unique way it has decided to take on e-commerce, hand-in-hand with its retail partners.
There have been plenty of enormous e-commerce purchases over the years. Entrepreneur Mark Cuban holds the all-time record with his 1999 online acquisition of a $40 million Gulfstream V private jet. This two-decade record won't last much longer. From supercars and megayachts, to art masterpieces and luxury properties — even entire towns… The world's wealthiest have grown increasingly comfortable buying ever more expensive items over the internet. It's only a matter of time 'til someone clicks on a multimillion-dollar purchase that makes Cuban's seem small potatoes.
Still, until quite recently, a nagging sense of skepticism lingered in the luxury industry over the question of whether customers would happily order big-ticket items online. Experience has taught fashion brands just how willing shoppers are to open their digital wallets. Watch companies have been more reticent, with very few of the major players making their products available for direct online purchase. (Estimates suggest that less than 5% of luxury watch purchases are made online.) In no small part, this hesitance stems from an admirable desire to give the customer an outstanding retail experience, of the sort that can only be provided in real life. Unfortunately, the approach has backfired on both the watch companies and their loyal clients;
"I think we in the watch industry have been very arrogant in not offering e-commerce," says Maximilian Büsser, who held senior management positions with Harry Winston and Jaeger-LeCoultre before founding his own eponymous watch company, MB&F, 15 years ago. "While we thought we were actually caring for the customer by not doing something as ‘vulgar' as an e-shop, we were actually being arrogant, because we were making a customer's life difficult," Büsser says.
While we thought we were actually caring for the customer by not doing something as ‘vulgar' as an e-shop, we were actually being arrogant, because we were making a customer's life difficult"
Büsser offers the hypothetical luxury Swiss watch-buying experience of a customer residing in a town in the American Midwest. "To buy a watch, you have to go and take a plane, go to a big city, get a hotel room. Then the next morning, you have to take a cab to get to the store at 10 o'clock. Not at nine. No, no, no, you can't come at nine, you have to come at 10! Then when you arrive at the store, in all likelihood, you know more about the watch than the person who is going to sell it to you."
The customer has to go to all of this effort, Büsser asks rhetorically, "Just to get a coffee and a chocolate, because that's the ‘sales experience'? No. That customer, he just wants to be at home in front of his computer, saying: ‘Deliver it to me.'" Today, Büsser believes, the watch industry must allow customers to shop the way they like, the way they find most convenient. Quit insisting they make a pilgrimage to the brand's retail temple. "Stop being so stuck up," he says. "It is our obligation to take the friction out of the system and to allow anybody who wants a piece to buy it — whenever they want."
Another factor in watch companies' hesitance to sell online, direct to the consumer, is a wish to do right by the authorized distributors who've acted as the watchmakers' retail partners and ambassadors in various territories around the world for decades. In many cases, these relationships have endured for generations. It would be neither fair nor prudent to cut loyal distributors out of the equation. With MB&F's e-shop operation, Büsser says, he has gone to great lengths to ensure his longtime partners are seamlessly integrated. And in doing so, he's built a unique e-commerce model.
It is our obligation to take the friction out of the system and to allow anybody who wants a piece to buy it — whenever they want."
For much of its existence, MB&F had shied from selling its new watches online. "We didn't want to upset our retail partners, they are 90% of our business and I would not want them to feel that I'm competing with them. We are where we are today thanks to our retail partners," Büsser explains with genuine humility and gratitude. "Then COVID happened — and suddenly, in mid-March, 24 out of our 26 retailers around the world closed. Maybe they were actually continuing to sell (by delivering to customers). However, their stores were closed. So we started thinking, ‘Okay, perhaps now's the time to allow our clients to buy directly.' But we did it with a twist."
This summer, MB&F has added a selection of its horological and legacy machines for sale at shop.madgallery.ch
Testing the waters by offering a small number of their recent limited-edition collaborations with H.Moser & Cie for purchase via the website shop.madgallery.ch, Büsser says he was shocked when the seven pieces they'd put up for sale on the site all sold within 12 hours. "We really didn't expect anybody to go and put it in the (online) basket and pay 49,000 Swiss francs," Büsser says. As it turned out, however, demand was so great that the next day, MB&F had a waiting list of customers who'd failed to secure one of the pieces offered online. Büsser was able to arrange for these customers to buy from MB&F's retail partners and within four days, the entire run of 60 MB&F x Moser LM101 timepieces had been bought and paid for.
We really didn't expect anybody to go and put it in the (online) basket and pay 49,000 Swiss francs"
MB&F's e-commerce platform does not list its entire collection but instead offers a selection of a few references, for limited periods of time, on a rotation basis. The choices for these are typically the last remaining piece of a specific model. These are sold in full transparency, with the retail partners transacting with the customer. For this service, MB&F does not receive any extra commissions or fees.
The Legacy Machine No. 2 (LM2) in Red Gold with a Blue Dial featured on its website, is sold via The Hour Glass in Singapore.
"That was a way of showing our retail partners that our shop can be their best friend, because we'll send them customers," Büsser explains. MB&F then expanded upon the concept by contacting their retailers and asking whether they had unsold pieces in store that could be featured on MB&F's e-shop. If a customer expressed an interest in one of these rarities, MB&F would refer them to the retailer to finalise the purchase and delivery. During the past six months, Büsser says, MB&F's partners around the world have shown what they're truly made of. "A lot of retailers amazed us, really supporting us, and I think this was our way of saying, you can always count on us, too."
That was a way of showing our retail partners that our shop can be their best friend, because we'll send them customers"
The brand has long done a tidy online trade in certified pre-owned timepieces. Büsser was nevertheless surprised by the success of MB&F's first foray into e-commerce proper. "We only craft 200 pieces a year," Büsser says, "and if we craft 15 to 20 of the same model a year, that's a lot. So except maybe in Singapore, where there is a big concentration of MB&F fans, it's very difficult to see one (of our watches) on somebody's wrist. And therefore it's very difficult to just click, put it in a basket, when it's something you've never tried on."
Where a potential buyer will likely have a frame of reference for the product of another luxury watch brand, an MB&F is something altogether more rare and unusual — and expensive. "What we do is special. You need to try it on. You need to look at it," says Büsser. "You don't just see a photo on your phone and go, ‘Okay, I'll take it, here's a hundred grand,' do you? That doesn't seem right. But the Moser collaboration told us, well, actually some people are okay with that." That's why frictionless e-shopping is here to stay at MB&F. "Do I expect a lot of people to go online and buy a piece from us? No. But I have to offer that option," Büsser concludes.
Do I expect a lot of people to go online and buy a piece from us? No. But I have to offer that option"
With its timepieces so often boasting space-age designs, it's only right that MB&F's approach to retail should embrace the world of tomorrow. Whether more traditional watchmakers follow suit remains to be seen. Many may have experienced a rude awakening during the COVID-19 crisis, which saw sales for April 2020 down 80% on the previous year's figures. In part this was due to a plunge in consumer confidence. In part it was a result of the halt of tourism (which accounts for a big slice of watch sales). In part it was thanks to the fact that, with shops shut and brands lacking an e-commerce offering, customers couldn't buy — whether they wanted to or not. Watch companies have paid a steep price for refusing to adopt e-commerce. In doing so, Busser says succinctly, "We've been wrong."