Rolex’s Swiss Watch Hegemony Threatened by Omega

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March 18 (Bloomberg) -- When it came to choosing a new watch, Ma Jun had no hesitation in selecting a $6,800 Omega Constellation over a Rolex.

Omega’s designs are newer and trendier,” said the 30- year-old businessman from Hangzhou, China. He bought the watch a month ago after seeing advertisements featuring swimmer Michael Phelps and actress Zhang Ziyi. “Rolex is old and traditional.”

That perception, together with a boom in Asian sales, helped Swatch Group AG’s Omega snatch market share from Rolex in the $35 billion Swiss watch industry last year, analysts say. Rolex, whose cheapest model is almost 60 percent more expensive than Omega’s, has also been hit harder by the U.S. recession.

“For the gorilla in the industry, you feel threatened when you have brands that are smaller than you growing fast and doing a good job,” said Scilla Huang Sun, head of equities at Swiss & Global Asset Management in Zurich, who oversees about 4 billion Swiss francs ($3.8 billion) including Swatch shares.

Swiss watch exports fell 22 percent in 2009, the biggest drop since the Great Depression, as retailers canceled orders. Both Swatch Group and Cie. Financiere Richemont SA, the owner of Cartier, have signaled their shipments outperformed the market, leading Rey Wium, an analyst at Nedbank in Johannesburg, to speculate Rolex’s shipments dropped more than the market did.

“If these two outperformed, clearly somebody else suffered much more, and we all know it was probably Rolex,” Wium said. “These things are notoriously difficult to gauge, but Rolex definitely lost out in terms of sales to retailers.”

Swatch Shares

Swatch Group bearer shares rose 7.6 francs, or 2.3 percent, to 334.1 francs at 3:03 p.m. in Zurich, the biggest advance in the Swiss Market Index. The stock has more than doubled in the past year, as has Richemont.

Both brands will be showcasing their latest models at Baselworld, the biggest watch fair, which starts today in Basel, Switzerland. Omega is one of 18 brands belonging to Swatch Group, which also produces $50 plastic Swatches and double- tourbillion Breguet timepieces for more than $700,000. Bank Vontobel analyst Rene Weber estimates Omega’s 2008 sales at about 1.48 billion Swiss francs, compared with Rolex’s 4.5 billion francs and Cartier’s 1.63 billion francs.

Omega, whose entry-level timepieces cost about $2,500, gets 35 percent of sales from greater China, Jon Cox, an analyst at Kepler Capital Markets, estimates. The brand is sold in about 80 outlets in China. Rolex watches, which start from about $4,100, can be found in 200 Chinese stores and 80 in Hong Kong, the world’s largest market for Swiss watch exports. Rolex gets about 5 percent of sales from the region, Cox estimates.

Internet Searches

In China, a quarter of all Internet searches for watch brands last year were for Omega, compared with Rolex’s 18 percent, according to IC Agency, which analyzed 500 million search queries in a study of 10 countries. China and Hong Kong last year consumed a fifth of total Swiss watch production.

Geneva-based Rolex, which is owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, got about a third of revenue from the U.S. before the credit crunch, Kepler’s Cox said. The U.S. had the biggest drop in Swiss watch shipments in 2009 among the 10 nations that imported the most, declining 38 percent. Omega relies on the U.S. for about 10 percent of its sales, Cox estimates.

Omega’s revenue from its own boutiques, which normally makes up about a fifth of the brand’s overall sales, increased 10 percent last year, according to President Stephen Urquhart. He said the brand doesn’t disclose total revenue. Cox estimates that sales at 105-year-old Rolex fell about 25 percent in 2009.

“It’s a goal for Omega to gain market share,” Urquhart said of the Swatch unit, which traces its roots back to 1848.

COSC Data

To estimate the market share of the watch makers, analysts look to certification data collected by a Swiss regulator known as the COSC, which reported 2008 figures in August. Rolex had 769,850 timepieces certified for accuracy by the COSC in 2008, 32 percent more than in 1999. Omega, which certifies most of its mechanical watches, almost tripled its certifications over the same period, with 377,514 in 2008. Certification is optional and requires the watches to pass a round of tests for accuracy.

Rolex doesn’t report sales and advises against using certification data to estimate revenue as those numbers don’t take into account inventory movements, spokeswoman Virginie Chevailler said. She declined to comment further.

In 2008, Rolex gained market share faster than Swatch Group, according to estimates by Vontobel’s Weber, who has covered the industry for 15 years. Swatch Group sold 16.3 percent of the world’s Swiss-made watches in that year, up from 15.4 percent in 2007, Weber said. Rolex, whose two brands are Rolex and Tudor, had a 16.1 percent share in 2008, up from 14.6 percent the previous year, the analyst said.

‘Brand For my Dad’

Omega gained luster with younger consumers when actor Daniel Craig wore its Planet Ocean in the 2006 James Bond movie “Casino Royale.” Craig’s predecessor as 007, Pierce Brosnan, appeared with an Omega in the 1995 film “Golden Eye.” Rolex was in earlier Bond movies, Sean Connery wearing a Submariner model in 1962’s “Dr. No.”

“I won’t wear Rolex, that’s a brand for my dad,” said Dani Wen, a 23-year-old student from Guangzhou as she eyed a $3,800 ladies’ Omega Constellation in a Hong Kong watch shop.

Still, Rolex may maintain its market share in coming years as smaller brands go out of business, Vontobel’s Weber said. Retailers have been cutting the number of brands they stock in order to focus on better-selling marques, and they’re more likely to drop minor brands than names like Rolex, he said.

The company may be able to recover market share in China by investing more in the market, said Kevin Chau, Vice-Chairman of Sincere Watch HK Ltd., a Hong Kong-based watch wholesaler.

“The current resources Rolex is committing is only the tip of an iceberg,” Chau said.

‘Big Battle’

“From a pure branding perspective, Omega have a very, very long way to go to get anywhere near Rolex,” said Jez Frampton, chief executive officer of brand consultant Interbrand. Interbrand estimates the Rolex brand’s value to have fallen 7 percent last year to $4.6 billion, making it one of the world’s top 100 brands. Omega isn’t within the top 150, Frampton said.

Rolex expects 2010 to be a better year than 2009, without matching 2008’s record sales, L’Agefi reported Oct. 1, citing Bruno Meier, almost a year after he replaced Patrick Heiniger as chief executive officer. Meier was chief financial officer at Rolex for three years after a banking career including positions at Deutsche Bank AG’s Swiss unit.

“The big battle is Omega versus Rolex,” said Andre Polony, the owner of the Piguet jewelry and watch store in Nyon, northeast of Geneva. “Rolex is losing market share against Omega and over time this might weaken Rolex’s hegemony.”

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