Interview: Toby Bateman, Managing Director of Mr Porter

Toby Bateman outlines his plans to develop the luxury watch segment on the online men’s fashion portal

Toby Bateman Mr Porter

When Mr Porter launched in 2011, it was a roll of the dice. Its elder sibling, Net- a-Porter, was over a decade old by then and its founder Natalie Massenet had just sold the women’s fashion site to luxury conglomerate Richemont.

The men’s online shopping space was uncharted territory and there was no guarantee
that Mr Porter would succeed. Hedging his bets was Toby Bateman, the firm’s managing director, whose task it was to get the project off the ground.

“We launched the business with 80 fashion and accessory brands. By the second season we grew that number to 140, by the third season we grew that number to nearly 200. The one thing we had going for us
was Net-a-Porter as an older sister and therefore we had evidence that we could sell luxury items online.”

Early on, just as Mr Porter began to get some market traction by selling ready-to-wear menswear, shoes, accessories and grooming products, it found a gaping hole in its portfolio of available categories.

“If Mr Porter was going to be a destination for all elements of a man’s wardrobe, we’d be missing a vital part without watches. It’s like us not selling shoes. That was the primary reason that we got into the watch business in 2013.”

Recruiting luxury watch brands to come onboard, as Bateman would soon find out, was far more challenging than it was with fashion brands. “There hadn’t been any precedent set for anyone selling watches online in a successful, authoritative or benchmarking way back then. It was an alien concept for the watch world,” he says.

Bateman received his big break when British watchmaker Bremont decided to become the first fine watchmaker to be listed on the site. “That was a real leap of faith for them,” he recalls. “They were able to take
that decision because they
are independently owned. Having that brand enabled us to demonstrate what we could do with fine watches as an item and a category.”

While Bremont afforded Mr Porter one foot into the door, it was the signing on of IWC under the then CEO Georges Kern in 2016 that really saw Mr Porter storming down the front door. Inevitably, other venerable luxury watchmakers from Piaget and Panerai to Jaeger-LeCoultre and TAG Heuer were keen to partner up.

In some cases, the men’s e-commerce site bagged exclusive retailing rights to specific pieces. Earlier this
year, for example, Mr Porter was appointed as the exclusive online retailer for the new Cartier Santos watch. In addition, Cartier also created
a special steel version with a black leather strap of the Santos that was made available only on Mr Porter.

Montblanc was another luxury watch brand that entered into an exclusive agreement with the company. “In April last year we became the global exclusive launch partners for the Summit digital watch. For one month, Mr Porter was the only place – online or offline – where you could buy the watch,” says Bateman.

After the maverick Georges Kern took over Breitling in 2017, the watchmaker partnered with Mr Porter to launch the Navitimer 8 earlier this year.

Mr Porter also entered
the co-branded watch space with some of these luxury watchmakers. Last year, there was a Ressence X timepiece limited to just 12 pieces. Earlier this year, French-Swiss watchmaker Bell & Ross too collaborated. “Carlos [Rosillo] at Bell & Ross has been very enthusiastic about e-commerce of watches to the point where he created a special watch for us which he then launched in Basel earlier this year.”

By debuting these co-branded watches, special edition timepieces, and website exclusives offerings, Mr
Porter has struck a far smarter e-commerce model than other online retailers. But it has one more ace – the creation of watch editorials. That, says Bateman, is one of the biggest differentiators of its business model.

However, it couldn’t follow the same approach to watch editorials as it did with its fashion editorials. “We’ve been producing watch editorials ever since we’ve begun selling watches. Most fashion brands launch new products every week.

“Large watch brands might have only a dozen novelties
for the year. So we needed a platform where we could create content on a weekly basis, using products that have been there on the website for quite some time. We change the conversation regularly. So in summer we’d talk about watches to take to the beach, in winter we’ll do stories about elegant dress watches and in September we might do watches to wear to a job interview.”

Watch editorials also bring in an all-new breed of customers who otherwise wouldn’t gravitate towards fashion-first websites. By talking about
the releases from SIHH or Baselworld, Bateman says, the watch editorials provides an entry point to the site for a lot of men who are interested in consuming watch content but not necessarily interested in what Gucci and Balenciaga are doing week-by-week.

“We did a survey among our customers on how they buy a luxury watch, and 80 per cent said that the first thing they do is to search online. That’s before they look in the shop window, before they try something on in the department stores or at the departure lounge of Heathrow airport or JFK airport. They first read online. This has become the norm.”

To index all those editorials, the site recently launched The Luxury Watch Guide. “That guide enables us to create a site within a site with its own navigational systems. When you go to the brand’s page on The Luxury Watch Guide, you get not only the history of the brand but an explanation of the different families within that brand – for example, what’s the difference between a Breitling Navitimer 1 and a Navitimer 8 or between a Superocean and a Chronomat.”

Mr Porter has invested in content creation by shooting all the original photography of the watches featured on the site – it apparently doesn’t rely on press handouts of images supplied by brands – and has put in place dedicated editorial staff to produce the narrative content.

“We are putting the watches in the context of a fashionable outfit. We are talking about the brand, its history, the movement, the craft and where the watches are assembled. And we are still selling at full price and not discounting,” explains Bateman

Dedicated platforms for watch content are also a response to the way men specifically invest in luxury watches, which is different from the way they do in fashion. “Within the price range of say GBP3,000-5,000 ($3,830- $6,383), customers have a different approach to shopping for watches than they do with fashion. With watches, they still need to consume a lot more information than with
fashion before they decide
to buy a timepiece.”

Mr Porter’s website today has 400 brands across all
its categories spanning classic, luxury, designer and contemporary brands. As Bateman points out, watches at the moment represent a very small percentage of total turnover.

“Typically the entry prices on the category we refer to as luxury watches, occupied by brands like Oris, starts from around GBP1,000 ($1,285) and goes up all the way to GBP50,000 ($64,218) for say a Jaeger-LeCoultre perpetual calendar in gold.”

The Swiss watch industry can be painfully hierarchical
at times. Historically, some of them would throw a fit at the very thought of being featured on the same page as a $100 fast fashion product. So how does the site counter that?

“The reality is that a guy could be wearing a GBP50,000 ($64,218) JLC watch to the office during the week, but when he goes to the south
of France for his holiday, he puts on a Luminox rubber
dive watch because he’s going be spending time in the pool with his kids. That’s the real truth of how modern men
are consuming and wearing things. They mix high and low price points and it’s exactly the same with clothing. We offer a GBP3,000 ($3,853) Brunello Cucinelli cashmere cardigan on the same page as I will a GBP50 ($64) pair of converse sneakers. The same man is going to wear both of those items together.”

In many ways, e-commerce and the internet create a level playing field between big brands that have millions of dollars as marketing spends and smaller niche brands that don’t have those inflated marketing machines backing them up.

“The interesting thing about online shopping is that the product is king. Many years before I joined Mr Porter, I worked in departmental store retail. In a traditional shopping environment, be it a mall or a department store, big brands like Rolex, Gucci, Armani or Breitling will always dominate. “Online, the presence we give to niche brands like Ressence
or NOMOS Glashütte is
equal to that given to IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre or Breitling. All of them get exactly the
same treatment, photography, product details and we are very democratic in the way we select items to feature in our editorials. The result is that you get rid of some of that big brand glow
and customers end up being gravitated towards the best item – whether it’s a watch or a pair of trousers.”

After bringing any watch brand on board, Mr Porter sifts through the entire collection and selects only a few references to feature on its website. “We would typically represent 20-25 per cent of a brand’s total offer,” says Bateman. “We pre-select only the best brands and within those brands we pre-select only the best references. People will, therefore, shop at Mr Porter rather than going to a brand boutique and seeing hundreds of references and not knowing where to start.”

There are threshold markers that the site uses when determining which brands make it on and which don’t. One of the most important, he explains, is that a brand needs to bring something new to the website.

“Men don’t have the patience or the capacity to see a number of different brands doing more or less the same thing, producing products with similar designs
at nearly identical price points. That’s one of the big rules we follow on fashion and one we follow on watches as well.”

For the watches specifically, he adds that high-quality
brands that have provenance
and heritage – in other words, plenty of fodder for the company to craft stories around – have a marked advantage over the others.

One of the legacy factors that typically slow the transitioning of customers from brick-and- mortar stores to the online space is concern over after-sales. Bateman says that they’ve got a robust mechanism to deal with this issue. “All the watches come with manufacturer’s warranty, just as if you were to buy it from any authorised dealer. If you need a watch serviced, we’ll come and collect it from you, deliver it to the brand to be serviced and then have it returned to you. Returns are free and we will come and collect them from you.”

In May this year, Richemont completed a GBP2.4bn ($3.06bn) takeover of the Yoox Net-a-Porter Group under which Mr Porter and Net-a-Porter operate. This means the potential to more fully tap key markets like the Middle East. “Yoox Net-a-Porter has entered into a joint venture with the Alabbar Group to localise our e-commerce operations in the next year or two,” says Bateman.

“You will be seeing a lot more news coming through about Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter and indeed Yoox and Outnet too on the measures to improve our local service in the Middle East.”

With the recent news of the world’s biggest luxury watch conglomerate, the Swatch Group, exiting the world’s largest watch trade fair, Baselworld, speculation is rife as to the future of the conventional trade shows itself. Bateman is definitely not sounding the death knell for these watch shows, though he adds that there are monumental changes being made to the way the watch companies conduct themselves and their business.

“Things have dramatically changed in the last 24 months at fairs like the SIHH and Baselworld. Earlier this year when we were at the fairs in January and March, I was introduced to a digital director at every appointment I had with every brand. These are brands that as recently as last year did not have a digital director.”

Mr Porter is also leveraging the influencer category, but as Bateman emphasises on the tone of that influencer basket, he says, “Kanye West and Kim Kardashian aren’t part of it”.

Mr Porter’s approach to social media influencers has resulted in the creation of The Style Council on its website which is a network of 130-140 influencers selected by Mr Porter. “The diverse group of men have one thing in common
– that’s an opinion on style. Some of them are traditional influencers with large social media following, while the others are just really interesting men from arts or design or music or even from traditional business industry,” explains Bateman.

With Richemont now the parent company, it’s inescapable for a greater number of big luxury watch brands to come on board. “We are launching Vacheron Constantin on our site with the Fiftysix timepiece this September. We will also be launching Cartier across all their watch families on our site. We will be the exclusive e-commerce partner for Vacheron, as we will be for Cartier.”

But just as Mr Porter has done from the beginning, it’s also going to be rooting for the smaller players. “Over the next few years, we will be launching more niche brands within the watch category,” confirms Bateman.

An underdog giving other underdogs a shot at the big time – what’s not to love about this story?