Anyone can sell a watch, just as any watch company can make one. But there is an art to retail just as there is an art to watchmaking, according to Lynn Schroeder, UK managing director of German-based retailer Wempe. At the newly refurbished Wempe store on London’s New Bond Street, Schroeder draws a parallel between Wempe and Patek Philippe, two storied brands founded in the 19th century that put great dedication into being the very best at what they do.
‘I have been working for Wempe for 23 years now, and there’s a reason for that,’ says Schroeder. ‘Both Patek Philippe and Wempe are familyowned businesses, and personally I think that makes a massive difference, for the people that work for the company as well as the customers. You are not seen as a number, you are a human being, and both companies share this philosophy.’
The Hamburg-based Wempe now has 34 stores across the world, but it started very modestly. In 1878 a young watchmaker called Gerhard Wempe opened a little shop in a corner of his aunt’s house in the small Lower Saxony town of Elsfleth. The watchmaker branched out into acquiring and selling second-hand watches. He showed a flair for knowing what his customers wanted before they did, and soon he was selling more watches than his aunt’s house could handle.
Wempe’s empire spread first to the bigger Saxony town of Oldenburg, then to Hamburg and onwards. He moved from second-hand to brand new watches, and building relationships with quality brands was key to the growth of the business, just as it is today, along with investing in the company’s own products. Today Wempe sells its own brands of both jewellery and chronometer-certified watches, alongside what reads like a roll call of the finest watch brands in the world, from Patek Philippe and Rolex, through to Ulysse Nardin and Vacheron Constantin.
As the company grew, it was passed down through the Wempe family and, since 2003, has been under the leadership of Kim-Eva Wempe, the fourth generation in charge, who oversaw a more-than doubling in turnover for the company.
Wempe has been in London since 1997 and its 21st anniversary is celebrated with a complete overhaul of its New Bond Street store, one that reflects the changing wishes of luxury watch buyers, according to Schroeder, who for the second time moved her office to make room for more of, what she calls, the “heart of the store”, the service areas where watchmakers in white coats can be seen patiently working away on customers’ watches.
The servicing of watches was once a backroom job, something you might know about but didn’t care to see. But here Schroeder draws a comparison with restaurants and how it is normal nowadays to have kitchens in full view, rather than locked away out the back. The refurbished store gives much greater visibility to the service areas, because Schroeder feels that this demonstrates to people a relationship with the retailer that doesn’t stop when you walk out of the door with your new watch.
‘We expanded our after-sales service area,’ says Schroeder. ‘I think it is unique for a retailer to have it at the forefront, really at the heart of the store like this. Just as you see the chefs cooking in a restaurant, here you see the watchmakers working. It is important to maintain the value of the timepieces that we sell. The customers enjoy seeing the watches being maintained, and it is good for them to observe how much we invest into that side of business. We want to have a long-term relationship with our customers and they can see that they are in good hands.’
Now that the restructuring has finished, the showroom has over 400 square metres of display space, including an area dedicated to Patek Philippe. Here customers can sit and immerse themselves in all things Patek. It includes such glittering delights as the beautiful pairing of a new white gold Perpetual Calendar alongside a new Calatrava in matching white gold (References 5372G and 6006G, for those of you who are that way inclined). In keeping with the theme of putting fine watchmaking where you can see it, both models have a sapphire caseback so you turn the watch over and gaze at the mesmerising intricacy of the self-winding movement.
For the renovation, the Hamburg-based architect Anna Nicolas took the historical character of the building into account during the planning stages, just as she did with the Wempe branch in New York and the company flagship on the Maximilianstrasse in Munich. ‘This was a wonderful challenge,’ she says. ‘We wanted to create a sophisticated space that is worthy of the objects on display. On the top floor, where the jewellery is sold, we took down the heavy curtains from the windows and opened up the view of our lively and elegant neighbourhood.’
The result of the €1.7m refurbishment is a lighter and brighter space that matches the nature of the building. But that is just the start, as Kim-Eva Wempe herself says, ‘Of course Wempe is more than just a point of sale. Our corporate concept includes an extensive range of services – and that means there’s lots of communication in the showroom. In the age of internet shopping, showrooms have to demonstrate that they have the personal touch’.
Anybody can sell watches, of course. But just like watchmakers, not all retailers are the same.