An unprecedented decline
Like the global economy, the Swiss watch industry experienced an unprecedented crisis in the first half of the year, the consequences of which will affect it for a long time. The market was at a standstill for many weeks during this period and most trade was interrupted.
After a promising start to the year, as yet unaffected by Covid-19, Swiss watch exports began to fall sharply in March and then came to a halt in April and May. Although the decline in June was still very pronounced, there were signs that the initial shock had passed and that the expected recovery had begun, albeit timidly, and only due to China in the short term. In six months, the sector exported the equivalent of 6.9 billion francs, far from the 10.7 billion posted for the same period last year, a fall of 35.7% compared with the first half of 2019. The only real impact in the first quarter was a decline in China, resulting in a fall of 7.4%. The most severe consequences of the pandemic were felt in the second quarter, which saw watch exports plummet by 61.8%.
The end of the first half therefore marks not the end of a cycle, but a period of transition between an unparalleled shock and a slow return to normal. Apart from the figures at this specific point, an examination of the trend in the major factors influencing the watch market outlines how the situation might recover. The first point to note is a high level of uncertainty. Estimates of the scale of the final decline are still crude and the same is true of the time it will take to return to normal. Consumer confidence is a key element in the recovery. At a time when all eyes are on China, which is showing the first signs of a return to normal, there are still numerous factors affecting the recovery process. Hong Kong is practically at a standstill, suffering from both the consequences of the health crisis and its political situation. The United States are still being hit hard by the pandemic and Europe is suffering from the drastic reduction in international tourism, which is having a severe negative impact on the travel retail sector. According to those involved, international travel will take three years to return to normal, creating a long-term obstacle to sales of luxury goods, including watches. Similarly, the onshoring of consumption in China will accelerate, but will be spread over several years and will therefore not offset immediately the declines seen elsewhere.
Overall, the return to normal for Swiss watchmaking will be a medium- or even long-term process. Watch exports are likely to reflect a market contraction of around 30% overall in 2020, with certain marked differences between key players.
Wristwatches generated 95% of export turnover between January and June, which fell by 35.3% in value compared with the first half of 2019. Switzerland exported 5.5 million watches during the first half of the year, compared with just over 10 million last year, a drop of 44.9%.
Falls were recorded in all price segments. The 200-500 francs (export price) range was most severely affected, falling by half. Watches priced at over 3,000 francs, which represent more than 70% of total value, performed slightly better than average, declining by 32.7%.
The decline in the first half of the year reflects more the disruption and stark overall reduction in movements of goods than a real change in demand. The breakdown of watch exports by region does not therefore provide any further information on market trends. Asia (-35.7%), Europe (-36.8%) and America (-32.9%) all experienced comparable declines at the end of the first half of the year.
All markets fell sharply between January and June. China was the exception, with a decline of only 14.6%. The fall in watch exports there was lower in anticipation of the recovery, which became a reality in June, with growth of 47.7%. For the moment, other markets are showing no real signs of recovery in terms of watch exports.
July 21, 2020