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“India Will Surely Be Among The Fastest-Growing Markets,” Says Yasho Saboo, Chairman of Ethos Watches

Yashovardhan Saboo, the man behind India’s main watch retail company, foresees a bright future for the country’s luxury watch market.

| By Pascal Brandt | 10 min read |

The watch industry and its market are in constant evolution, with new brands appearing almost daily. The distribution has to face intense volatility due to the duplication of selling channels, the increased pressure of business combinations and the recent rise of certified pre-owned (CPO), which concerns Rolex but also many more brands. A handful of retailers, however, have a strong influence on their domestic markets, such as Ethos Watches, an inescapable name in India. We’re talking with Yashovardhan Saboo, a.k.a Yasho Saboo, Chairman of a heavyweight retailing group, who shares his 360-degree vision on the business in India and beyond. 

Pascal Brandt, MONOCHROME – A recent survey mentioned India as a future top market leader for luxury products. What is the potential of the Indian Market, and what is your vision about this perspective?

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Yasho Saboo, Chairman of Ethos Watches – No doubt, the Indian Market will become increasingly important for all manner of consumer products in the mass, premium and luxury space. The Indian economy is well positioned to clock a GDP growth of 6-8% for at least the next decade or more, which will translate into a steady growth in per-capita income. The growth of the HNI and UHNI segments will be significantly higher than average. This is also seen in the various projections of the growth of millionaires and billionaires in India.

I would say the Indian economy is roughly in a similar position as China was about 15-18 years ago. We all know the steady growth in the market for watches and other premium goods that China witnessed after 2005. India will be no different. Nevertheless, one difference must be that India is a vibrant democracy, which means that the big macroeconomic decisions can sometimes slow as they need to be discussed and negotiated. Nevertheless, India will surely be among the fastest-growing markets for Swiss watches in the world.

ETHOS handles more than 50 brands in different categories (watches and jewellery). Is the portfolio complete, or do you want to expand it further? If so, in which category?

The portfolio of brands at ETHOS almost wholly consists of watch brands. We believe that premium and luxury watches in India offer us the greatest potential for growth over the next 10 years. Therefore, we continue to strengthen our portfolio to offer the finest range of brands to Indian consumers. At the same, we offer the brands the highest quality of partnership to develop their presence in India and capture the promise of this market.

At the same time, as we have an excellent understanding of the Indian luxury customer, it is logical to look at other product segments. International branded jewellery is clearly a complementary product. India has a very large jewellery market, almost exclusively catered to by traditional Indian jewellery brands. But we believe the growth of international jewellery brands will take off, and we want to be part of that flight. Similarly, other specialized categories, such as travel, in which we have established a presence through a partnership with RIMOWA, are very promising. We are open to other opportunities, but our commitment to watch segments will not be diluted.

You handle many POS in India. How do you split/allocate the brands by area?

Allocation is based on the potential of the concerned market/city and is always finalized in consultation with the brand.

The watch market is overcrowded with brands, while jewellery is quite often very poorly represented (in terms of “branding”, except a few majors). The groups see this as their main axis of growth for the future. Is there a desire to follow the movement and develop ETHOS in jewellery?

I think I have already answered this question above. The growth of international jewellery brands has started from a very low base and might not hit any significant numbers over the next three to five years. But in a longer timeframe, India will inevitably become a strong market for these brands across price segments. We at ETHOS will continue to monitor this closely and take the necessary steps and initiatives at the right time.

Watches: you have almost all the big ones (established brands, independent brands with high-added value products, etc.). Who is missing, and what is the right mix/offer for the Indian market? You do not represent Titan, which is a major Indian watch producer. Why?

Indeed, we are extremely proud of the brands that we partner with, and we cherish our collaboration. However, many of the best-known haute horology brands are not yet present in India – Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Richard Mille, FP Journe, and A Lange & Söhne, to name a few. I have no doubt they will establish their presence in India soon, and we will welcome the opportunity to work with them.

TITAN is a highly successful and admired brand and company in India, selling over 10 million watches. It is important to know that watches represent less than 20% of TITAN’s business. Their largest segment, by far, is jewellery, and the fastest-growing segment is eyewear. It’s a highly respected company in India, and we have had the pleasure of working with them through our parent company, KDDL, as a supplier of components for more than 35 years. In the distribution of watches, TITAN has its strategy and network, which is in a segment different from ours.

ETHOS is a big name in distribution and an internationally renowned institution. Your view, first, on the Indian market and its evolution in the light of your long experience?

The evolution of the Indian market has been quite interesting. Until about 2000, the import of watches was not allowed, and Swiss watches were available to Indian consumers only through smugglers. Then, things were liberalized, and watches were allowed, but the import duties remained high. At ETHOS decided to take the plunge and establish stores working completely within legal processes, while a significant part of retail continued to work in the unofficial/grey market as it offered better margins and fewer hassles. However, between 2005-2015, the market developed, and malls were established; good-looking stores, customer experience, and professional managers and staff became important. Selling smuggled watches out of briefcases became more difficult. Swiss brands, too, realized that for orderly growth in India, legitimate business channels had to be embraced, and the grey market structures dismantled. This proved good for organized retailers like ETHOS. The market continued to grow but at a rate that was not exciting. 

Between 2016 and 2020, many important regulatory changes happened that, at first, disrupted the market – the ban on cash transactions, the need to furnish tax declarations for purchases, the change from state-wise tax to central VAT, and others. However, the duties were reduced, and the market became more orderly and disciplined. The COVID years 2020 and 2021 were difficult, but we can now see the positive impact of the government policy changes to have the positive impact as evident from the trends of the last eight quarters.

End customer: Regional? Travel-retail? And do you see a local/regional population of collectors emerging?

More than 95% of watches in India are sold to local residents. A community of collectors has already emerged, too; in fact, several collector groups are active, and we engage with them regularly. Tourism-based watch retail is very insignificant. There is travel retail i.e. duty-free stores at international airports. However, for premium and luxury segments, we can count only on the three largest airports – New Delhi, Mumbai, and now emerging Bangalore. We run duty-free watch stores in New Delhi and Bangalore (we have just won the bid – the store will open in a few months).

More broadly, how do you judge the evolution of distribution, which has moved from the brand > agent > retailer > end customer circuit to a more direct circuit (brand > end customer; brand > DOS; e-commerce; etc.)?

The evolution of distribution is logical, based on the spread of the internet and e-commerce across categories. However, our experience in India has been that while the internet and social media are excellent mediums for storytelling and promoting interest in mechanical watches as collectables, direct e-commerce will continue to be a small part of the overall business. Customer relationships, customer experience and touch and feel will remain important. As watches continue to become more complicated and unique, the ability to explain these to potential customers enticingly and convincingly will require physical stores, great salesmanship, honest customer relationships, and the wide choice that fine multi-brand stores offer.

Bucherer was purchased by Rolex. Your view on that move? What are the consequences of the distribution of a global network? Will you be impacted?

I believe Rolex has clarified that there will be no changes in the way Bucherer is managed; I have no reason to believe otherwise.

Multi-brand groups/multinationals seem to be less and less appreciated by retailers, who are said to be increasingly looking for niche or independent brands with high added and creative value. A fact or a legend?

The increasing presence and popularity of independent watchmakers is a fact. While you might not see them in the top 10 or 20 brands by the value of the business (though Richard Mille is one famous exception), you will see a large number of independent brands in discussion among watch collectors, in watch auctions, and the nominees and winners of GPHG awards.

If you had to sketch the Indian customer/watch aficionado profile, what would it be?

There is no one typical Indian consumer. However, we can broadly bucket them in a few groups.  

Collectors from wealthy families (old wealth). Typically, the new generation in these wealthy families is very interested in watches. They collect watches, seeking hard-to-find pieces. They are young and knowledgeable but quite conservative in their approach and tend not to speak about their watch collections.

Watch Collectors. They can be quite young, below 25 to well above 50 years. They are knowledgeable, and they buy watches across a wide price range, starting as low as USD 3,000 to as high as USD 300,000. Typically, they are more open to a wider range of brands and are willing to meet and speak about their watch collection with others.

Young Achievers and Professionals. These are young people who have created wealth for themselves – lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, bankers. Very often, they are buying their first or second luxury watch and, at this stage, tend to go with better-known names. However, they are eager to enhance their knowledge, and most of them tend to be repeat buyers.

Customers who buy for special occasions. Wedding-related purchases are very important in India. These purchases can be across a wide range of price points. The actual buyers are relatively mature, even though the watches are meant for much younger recipients. Once again, the choice of the brand remains generally restricted to well-known brands, but as the knowledge about specific brands is growing, the willingness to try these is increasing accordingly.

A RedBar Bombay x Ethos event – images by

ETHOS is one of the most important international platforms in the field, alongside a few others. Are you tempted to expand geographically, as Wempe did by leaving Germany to establish itself in other countries/markets?

By far, India is the greatest opportunity for growth for the premium and luxury watch business. We have a strong position here which we aim to consolidate and increase our market share in the Indian market. We do not rule out taking up opportunities in other countries, especially in South Asia, where markets like Bangladesh could be promising, but frankly, India is such a fantastic opportunity that we would like to focus all our energy and resources here, at least for the next few years.

Finally, what advice would a professional like you give to collectors today?

Collectors are mature and knowledgeable enough to decide for themselves. The best collectors I know do not buy watches for appreciation in value or to keep them locked in safes. True collectors follow their passion for watches, they buy what they like, they wear what they buy; they enjoy engaging with their timepieces and with watchmakers and other watch lovers and everyone who respects the amazing panoply of skills that haute horology brings together.

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