Online Retail Spotlight on Watch Brand Christopher Ward

Luxury Swiss watch brand Christopher Ward restricted themselves to solely retailing online. Their subsequent success has given traditional high street retailers cause to take notice. This recent interview with co-founder Mike France gives an insight into the secrets behing the brand’s success.

Why did you choose to start an online-only business?

I had just sold the Early Learning Centre (ELC) in 2004 and after about a month I was bored. Chris Ward, who I had known for 20 years, was also looking to sell his business. With my business partner, Peter Ellis, we got on a boat on the Thames in 2004 to brainstorm what we might do.

Having been in retail for more years than I would care to mention, Peter and I had already established a very successful business in ELC. We didn’t want to get too tied into bricks-and-mortar at that stage so decided on an online business. We wanted it to be relatively high-value and relatively low volume, something that could be sold across the world.

So when was your lightbulb moment?

One of the great lightbulb moments for me was when we discovered the prices the luxury watch brands were charging the customer. Frankly we thought it was crazy and we discovered that they were asking multiples that were incredible large. We then discovered that we were using lots of the same components that they were using.

What advertising strategy did you use?

For the first Christmas we had taken out some minimal advertising space, and sales started to take up significantly – but we had no idea why that was the case.

Then on 21 December, 2005 we took a call from a man who was at the time a member of the world’s largest watch forum called TimeZone. He said he had bought a watch and thought it was incredible. He had posted on TimeZone how incredible it was. The result was that we were discussed more than Rolex on the world’s largest watch forum in the months leading up to Christmas.

Who buys your watches?

We are able to profile very accurately and know the social demographic of our customers, and end up having social relationships with many of them – this is one of the advantages of being a direct-to-the-customer business. The average age is 44 years and the spread is from 18- 95.
What are you most proud of?

In July we launched our own in-house watch movement and we are very proud of it. It is probably the most important development for a British watch brand in the last 50 years.

What we have been able to do it take on the big brands and beat them, and be successful by doing things differently.

You don’t have to be huge to be successful. Flexibility is a great thing to have – that’s one of the lessons we brought with us.

What inspires you?

From the very first day we decided that our aim in life was that we wanted to bring that visceral pleasure of owning a brilliant piece of engineering on your wrist to as many people as we could. That’s what inspires us – every time somebody gets a watch from us who may not expect it to be as good as it is. When they feel the quality of the watch they are wearing they get a real pleasure – that’s what we are trying to do.

What is your main advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

However much cash you think you need, you need more. This is particularly true for startups. Work hard to get as much cash behind you as possible, however you possibly can. Secondly, find a mentor outside of the business who you can go to to talk things through. From the very start I have found people like this and they have been incredibly helpful to me.



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