Africa is hardly synonymous with wealth and luxury, but the African Development Bank says this may be about to change. A third of the continent’s countries are recording GDP growth rates above 6 per cent.
As a result, many of the world’s biggest watch brands are investing in stores and distribution networks on the continent.
For marketing purposes, most watchmakers split the continent into three regions: the Maghreb, central, and South Africa. Brands are most strongly established in the latter.
“We started to open a distribution network in Africa some five years ago,” says Jean-Claude Biver, head of the watch division at LVMH, which sells products in South Africa, Nigeria, Botswana and Angola.
“These last three developed astonishingly well, as our product met the taste of the newly rich,” he says. “We plan to open a store in Angola, where we have established a strong brand presence.”
According to Peter Harrison, chief executive of Richard Mille Europe, Middle East and Africa: “Nigeria is the force today. Obviously, a country of a 100m-plus people and a lot of raw materials … is going to be strong. But you can’t forget places such as Angola.”
As proof of this affluence, Mr Harrison cites the example of a limited edition watch costing about £55,000 and made in a series of 10 that was marketed in Angola’s capital, Luanda, and sold out in days.
“Africa is up 20 per cent in the year to November,” says Jean-Marc Pontroué, chief executive of Roger Dubuis, comparing that increase with a global rise in sales of just 2 per cent.
Africa’s growing home market is only part of the story, he says, as tourists from the continent also boost sales.
However, Jean-Daniel Pasche, of the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, points out that exports of Swiss watches to Africa are less 1 per cent of output.
Nonetheless, Swiss company Ulysse Nardin says a presence in the region is helpful in building awareness, even if big purchases are made elsewhere. The company has opened a shop in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
Patrik Hoffmann, chief executive, says the region’s importance has increased.
“What is new are markets such as Nigeria, Angola and Ghana, and we see customers from Nigeria shopping for minute repeaters and high-end pieces in London.”
In common with many, Mr Hoffmann sees South Africa as an established market where he has a number of concessions in larger outlets. But companies find the lack of established commercial infrastructure elsewhere on the continent challenging.
North African countries had been considered stable business environments, but since the political upheaval in the region during the Arab uprisings of 2011, many have seen sales fall.
Nicolas Garzouzi, chief executive for Audemars Piguet in the Middle East and Africa, says: “Retailers interested in opening watch stores are still very cautious when investing in representative collections, [although] we obviously don’t want to limit ourselves to a few pieces here and there.”
Jean-Frédéric Dufour, chief executive of Zenith, says: “It is a continent with great potential, but because the structures and the habits are not what we consider as standard in Europe, it is sometimes a little difficult.” Despite this, he says Africa compares favourably with other developing markets. “It is a little bit easier than India.”
Its reputation for instability notwithstanding, Africa has long been taken seriously by one of the luxury sector’s most successful brands.
Cartier has been active there for several decades. The company has three boutiques, two in Morocco and one in South Africa, and Cartier watches, fragrances and eyewear are distributed in 20 countries.
“We are looking to extend our presence in the near future,” says Alessandro Patti, managing director of Cartier Africa. “We believe that African clients, who are very attentive to the notions of quality, exceptional craftsmanship and beauty, will gain importance over the next decade.”
As Mr Dufour says: “Everywhere that has potential, you find watchmakers.”
Montblanc: Targeting new middle class
Montblanc started distributing its products in Africa in the late 1990s.
At present, the brand is investigating countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Congo for distribution expansion.
According to Jérôme Lambert, chief executive, markets such as Sudan, Senegal and Uganda are showing potential.
Montblanc has point-of-sale presences in 15 countries, including Egypt and Morocco in the Maghreb; Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast in west Africa; Mauritius, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in east Africa; and Botswana, Namibia and South Africa in the south.
It has recently appointed a partner in Algiers and is about to start doing business in Tanzania.
Besides the expanding economies, Africa’s population is its biggest asset, according to Mr Lambert. Young, well-educated Africans are contributing to the growth of a middle class.
Business travellers are another growth area. Mr Lambert notes that in the past, travellers between African countries or between Europe and Africa would shop outside their domestic market.
Now they can buy Montblanc at home.
“And of course,” says Mr Lambert, “it is the local clientele in each market that over the next few years will become more and more valuable to the brand.”