The current downturn in the luxury watch business is not stopping Cortina Watch from pressing on with its expansion plans.
Last week, Singapore's second-biggest watch retail chain officially opened South-east Asia's biggest Patek Philippe boutique in ION Orchard, Singapore's premier shopping mall. Later this year, Singapore's biggest Rolex shop run by Cortina will also open its doors at Marina Square.
"It's all about location, opportunity and timing," Cortina's chief operating officer Jeremy Lim explains. "If we (had) worried that business is bad, then we wouldn't have gotten this location," he says of the Patek Philippe boutique in ION. "This kind of location doesn't come all the time."
The Patek Philippe boutique in ION came just over a year after Cortina pumped S$4 million to unveil the world's biggest Patek Philippe boutique in Taipei 101, a landmark building at the heart of Taiwan's capital. It was conceived three years ago with the blessing of Patek Philippe's president Thierry Stern.
Cortina, which both its sales and net profits fell in the first nine months of its financial year ending March this year, operated a smaller Patek Philippe boutique in ION then. After looking around the shopping mall and found it to be a good location, Mr Stern agreed that Patek Philippe should have a bigger presence there.
The new 265.48 square metre boutique, over four times bigger than Cortina's first Patek Philippe boutique at ION, is an extension of the earlier boutique first opened in 2009. The bigger space offers customers more personal service and a better showcase of the Swiss watch brand's coveted timepieces.
Cortina, which also operates a Patek Philippe boutique in Marina Bay Sands, spent an estimated S$2.5-3.0 million renovating and remodelling the boutique, which has the novelty of having a "private" door for discreet and busy customers.
The work on expanding the boutique took four months to finish, but the boutique only opened recently because Cortina had to wait for the leases of the adjoining space, occupied by other tenants, to expire before it could move in.
The new Patek Philippe boutique in ION came when the dip in global sales of Swiss luxury timepieces last year, the first yearly drop since the 2009 recession, might have finally caught up with Singapore.
While the export of Swiss watches worldwide slipped 3.3 per cent in 2015 to 21.5 billion Swiss francs (S$30.7 billion), shipments to Singapore still rose one per cent to 1.13 billion Swiss francs. But the latest numbers show retail orders of Swiss watches in Singapore, one of the 10 biggest markets for luxury timepieces, plunged 22.6 per cent in January this year - the second-biggest fall in the top 10 markets.
"It would be a lie if I tell you we're not affected," Patek Philippe's commercial and marketing director Jerome Pernici says.
While 2015 was "the best year ever" for Patek Philippe, arguably the top Swiss luxury watchmaker, Mr Pernici discloses that this was largely in the first three quarters of the year. "The last quarter was more difficult and definitely 2016 will be challenging. We know it," he says.
Yet Patek Philippe, which celebrated its 175th anniversary last year, has weathered many crises in the past and came out of them stronger, Mr Pernici says.
"We keep looking at the long term. I don't know how long (this downturn) will be but once the market recovers, we will be ready."
The Rolex shop Cortina is working on will be the listed company's single biggest project ahead, involving 5,500 square feet of space for watch displays and events. Renovation costs alone could work out to around S$4 million.
Cortina, which also carries other brands such as Vacheron Constantin, Omega, Longines and Jaeger LeCoultre, is also likely to refurbish its multi-brand outlet at Raffles City this year.
Last year, the watch retailer opened a S$2 million multi-brand boutique at The Capitol, a luxury hotel and shopping development. At the same time, its Paragon outlet grew from 2,000 to nearly 3,000 square feet.
This article was first published on April 18, 2016.
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