Life as a Watch Retailer in 2020, Brick & Mortar versus E-commerce, Corona Perils and Founding the Amsterdam Chapter of Red Bar
Brick and mortar retailer ACE Jewelers went e-com more than 10 years ago
The past year has been a tough one for pretty much everyone on the planet. Some saw their business grow at such speed that it was a huge challenge to keep the pace up, while others (unfortunately many more) suffered from an almost standstill of their business. Brick and mortar stores had a very tough time, online flourished. ACE Jewelers are, besides a family business, a pioneer in e-commerce, and were the first to be allowed to sell luxury watches online; not your typical old fashioned jeweler. We sat down with Alon from ACE Jewelers, in Amsterdam, to hear how they have dealt with 2020, with the Coronavirus, and all its challenges.
Frank, MONOCHROME – Alon, when did you enter the family business and what was your first task or job in the company?
Alon Ben-Joseph: My father started Ace Jewelers back in 1975. As a baby, I literally crawled on the shop floor and as a kid I would love to go with my dad to work during school holidays. My first tasks were literally sweeping the floors and cleaning windows. No joke. My real sale gig: selling Swatch watches. My first watch in 1983 was a Swatch, so the bug got me young. Although we were authorized Swatch dealers, we could not get the Chrono’s, so we would import them from Italy & the US. That was my first ‘official’ responsibility: Head of buying & selling Swatch. HAHAHA.
When you started e-commerce with IWC and Omega (and some more eventually….) this was a pretty big deal for many luxury watch brands. How much talks, reassuring, etc. did it take to persuade them to allow you to start this.
We have been online since 1998 with a simple HTML website. We wanted to start eCommerce already in the early 2000s, but the brands were very opposed (read: they did not authorize it). Every year we would raise the topic but would be shot down. We started serious talks already in the end of 2006 with the brands and started building a serious subsidiary called Ace Online in 2007. After building an innovative eCommerce platform we launched the beta version in 2007, even though the brands did not give us writing permission yet. After seeing the end result all the brands we were authorized dealers of granted us an e-dealership that year. But, Georges Kern, then CEO of IWC, was a real visionary and was the first to do so. So, kudos to him.
Fast forward a few years, ACE is one of the globally known names for luxury watches. You and your team do so much more than simply selling watches; creating engaging content, the annual ACE List and a strong presence on social media. When did it become clear to you that so much more, then simply offering watches for sale, was needed?
Honestly, from day one. When we started our internal brainstorm sessions about morphing our classic brick-and-mortar business into (then hybrid still) an omnichannel retail business, we analysed what we did well and how to translate it to digital. We are an independent family-owned and run business. From day one we designed & manufactured diamonds and fine jewelry in-house. Due to my dad’s huge passion for watches, they were added to the brand portfolio and that is how we became a multi-brand retailer too. This per definition is a benefit and adds value. This USP becomes more and more clear with the growth of mono-brand boutiques. Consumers want to compare. Not only offline, but also online. Being independent is a huge benefit as it makes you more objective. Objective in the brands you present, the models you buy to stock and the advice you give consumers. Finally, as we are huge watch collectors ourselves (owners and team members of Ace Jewelers) we try to know every tiny detail of the products we sell and try to share the passion.
So, when we added digital sales channels – eCommerce platforms, but also social media channels – we translated what we always did to online. Great genuine and original content. Therefore we have our own Ace Photo Studio and present it in our own way. Always in a fun and humoristic way. We treat our friends, fans & customers like we would like to be treated if we were customers at Ace Jewelers.
How was 2020 for ACE and for you and your team?
I have to say that strangely enough, 2020 ended up being a great year. Obviously, I do not need to mention all the misery COVID-19 brought to this world. On a personal level it was amazing as my wife gave birth to our second child. And, business-wise we grew with double-digit numbers both offline as well as online. So, although the shock and volatility this year, we are blessed to say it has been positive.
Which brands/models sold best during this year?
Zooming in on horological highlights in 2020, there were a few that stood out. Following the chronological order of launches the stainless steel Bulgari Octo Finissimo automatic did very well for us. The Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight in blue was an instant hit and immediately become a waiting list model. Just like his brother with the black dial. Obviously, the Omega Speedmaster Snoopy III drove collectors bananas. That waiting list is so long. I just pray we can make every collector happy who made a down payment with us. Breitling launched awesome models this year and were received well. The Superocean Heritage 57 Rainbow in both dial colors surprised collectors in a positive way and sold out quickly. The TAG Heuer Carrera editions with Heuer 02 movements got a lot of love.
NOMOS launched the super elegant Lambda for the first time ever in steel instead of gold and that sold out immediately. Longines has been on fire for some time, especially with the re-editions of their historic pieces. They always do well with our collectors. This year they hit a home run with the Longines Spirit and modern new collection with roots in old pilot’s watches. They did a tremendous job there. Bremont made a beautiful tribute for Hawkings and that watch does well with collectors. The Zenith El Primero A384 Revival Shadow struck a chord with our fan base and sold well. The Ulysse Nardin Blast really spoke to our collectors that love contemporary Haute Horloger. Last, but certainly not least, we launched not one, but two Ace x Nomos collab limited edition watches this year. Our fourth and fifth edition with them. We were overwhelmed with the responses and sold out quick, our fifth one sold out within 24 hours. And, that in these weird times.
And you started the first official Red Bar Amsterdam chapter. Congrats! But how, why… tell me more please!
So, this is totally separate from Ace Jewelers and has no affiliation. I am good friends with Adam Craniotes (founder Red Bar) and we have been speaking about setting up an official chapter of RedBar Crew in Amsterdam. It never happened. We connected during a live interview session for our video series The Ace List Live in 2020 and we said we needed to finally do it. So, since we said it so firmly and we talked details, the Amsterdam Chapter of RedBar Crew was a fact a few weeks later. As I am a WatchNerd myself and a collector, for me it is a hobby and is not a commercial endeavor. I kindly invite all other watch enthusiasts to register via the link on our Instagram handle: @redbarams.
What’s more on the roll for the coming period, as we all expect that some sort of lock-down will be maintained until… summer 2021?
So, during the first lockdown, we brainstormed what we could do to keep our services up and our customers entertained. We already had eCommerce up and running for 13 years. We have been putting out original content on a daily basis, on multiple accounts. We have social media handles for both men (@acejewelers) and for ladies (@missacejewelers). We have a dedicated blog for NOMOS: Minimatikal.com and a dedicated blog for Speedmaster watches: SpeedyWatches.com. Obviously, we have a digital magazine on our own website too. So we came up with the idea of starting a series of live-streamed interviews with industry leaders where viewers can interact real-time and ask questions, which we called: The Ace List Live. We have recorded 23 episodes and called it Season One. We have created over 1.500 minutes of unique content. You can watch all episodes via TheAceList.com. We were overwhelmed with the responses so this year we are coming back with Season Two. Upon request of many fans we started an audio-only podcast series, exclusively on our Ace Jewelers Podcast, called: The Art of Collecting Wristwatches. You can hear it on Spotify, Google Podcasts and www.anchor.fm/acejewelers.
Obviously when it is permitted we will start up our regular schedule of physical events, both in-store and factory visits in Switzerland, Germany & UK.