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Talking horology: Mohammed Abdulmagied Seddiqi, CCO at Seddiqi Holding in Dubai

Talking horology: Mohammed Abdulmagied Seddiqi, CCO at Seddiqi Holding in Dubai

Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons isn’t letting the Covid-19 crisis drastically alter the business model of one of the world’s largest luxury watch retailers

dubai watch week

Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. With a formidable portfolio of over 60 high-end watch and jewellery brands including Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, retailing out of more than 50 locations across the UAE, it has become one of the largest luxury watch retailers not just here in the region, but in the world.

Mohammed Abdulmagied Seddiqi, chief commercial officer at Seddiqi Holding, is the third-generation family descendant running the business – one that has, like all the other luxury retail businesses globally, encountered significant headwinds this year due to the pandemic.

Taking a contrarian stand though, the company didn’t stop ordering timepieces even during the UAE’s lockdown period in which malls and retail stores were shut. “We took the risk of ordering from the companies during the lockdown because we believed that the pandemic is a short- to mid-term situation and we required pieces for our clients readily available for when things got back to normal,” says Seddiqi.

Bolstering those assertions were recently released figures by the Federation of Swiss Watch Industry, which showed that the UAE was Switzerland’s eighth biggest export market for its watches from January-June this year, with exports valued at CHF307.7m.

He says that the demand for watches hasn’t waned during the pandemic. To support that claim, Seddiqi cites the example of a limited-edition collaboration with independent watchmaker MB&F and Moser & Cie in June. The collection, limited to 15 watches exclusively made for customers in the UAE, was sold out before the watches even arrived in the country.

“We also recently launched a new watch from Audemars Piguet and we’ve been having fights on how to allocate them because that’s a [real] challenge for us.”

With waiting periods for watches like a steel Nautilus, for example, being in the region of eight years at some retailers globally – getting onto the waiting list is a notoriously difficult process and requires more than sheer good luck.

“Let’s consider someone who wants to purchase a Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet. We look at the purchase history of the client at Audemars Piguet and at Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons. Accordingly, he or she will be put on the waiting list to purchase the watch.” Once on that list, customers are allotted the timepieces on a first-come, first-served basis. “We follow a strict waiting list [policy] and we are very fair with clients. For clients who have no purchase history or who usually purchase abroad, we are blunt about it when we tell them that we give priority to our clients who are loyal to Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons,” cautions Seddiqi.

As he explains, getting onto that list also requires more than the ability to pay for the watch or the desire to keep up appearances – passion for the craft matters immensely. “Most of the brands are on social media. With it, the demand for specific models from each brand has increased. People have been trying to source these pieces without understanding the history or the profile of the brands – they are only looking at what is trending. Our job as retailers is to educate the client and one of the biggest platforms that we have is Dubai Watch Week.”

The biennial Dubai Watch Week (DWW), the next edition of which will be held in 2021, organised and curated by the Seddiqi family, is one that has risen to the ranks of leading global watch fairs such as Watches & Wonders and Baselworld.

If you need any proof of its standing, consider that last year Rolex chose DWW as its very first exhibition to participate in outside of Switzerland. That’s a statement of support from perhaps the most powerful Swiss watch brand in the world, and one that Seddiqi has supported from the Fifties. Back then, Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum personally issued a letter to Rolex affirming that Seddiqi & Sons could be a trusted partner and retailer for the brand. Two years ago, Rolex opened its largest boutique in the world with Seddiqi at the Dubai Mall – a sprawling 850-square-metre, three-storey facility.

Rolex Boutique Dubai
In 2018, Rolex opened its largest boutique in the world with Seddiqi at the Dubai Mall

Unlike Baselworld and Watches & Wonders, DWW is a purely non-commercial event serving as an educational initiative for enthusiasts to engage with watchmakers and brand owners via workshops and creative hubs – without the event being reduced to a massive sales pitch. “The approach by the marketing team, headed by my cousin Hind Seddiqi, was where watches were treated more than just a luxury product, [but rather] as a piece of art.”

The Covid-19 crisis may have forced some of the watch companies to scale down their operations, and as Seddiqi explains, a few even chose to delay the launch of novelties since the prevailing health pandemic didn’t create a favourable social climate for the release of their watches. But that’s now set to change with watch firms picking up the pace once again. He adds that Rolex has said that it will release a few novelties this month, while Patek Philippe launched a Calatrava and a few other models recently. “A lot of the brands showed at the Geneva Watch Days exhibition last month and contacted us to organise Zoom calls to show us their novelties. Some of them even brought the novelties to Dubai one month before the exhibition to show them to us so that we can place the orders.”

While Seddiqi doesn’t see the demand for new watches waning, retailers at some point – crisis or not – must reckon with the secondary watch market that runs in parallel to their business and is often hijacked by nefarious activities. He says that the family was searching for a way to enter the pre-owned watch market since 2006. The opportunity finally coalesced into a joint venture between US-based Watchbox and Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons last year, who during DWW 2019, launched Watchbox’s first-ever physical store in Dubai’s DIFC.

Watchbox Middle East
A joint venture between Watchbox and Ahmed Seddiqi & Sons last year, resulted in the former launching its first-ever physical store in Dubai’s DIFC

The decision to partner with Watchbox worked for several reasons, explains Seddiqi, including the fact that Watchbox buys the pre-owned watches – rather than just showcasing the collection of a third party. Every watch that Watchbox acquires also goes through a full-service cycle before it is sold. “In the Middle East, we service all the watches from our Swiss watch service [centre] here in Dubai, which is one of the biggest in the region. The watches are offered to clients with an extended two-year warranty from Watchbox. Apart from that, we also make sure that watches are not stolen or reported.”

If there’s one core takeaway from the crisis, Seddiqi says that retailers must remember to focus on the domestic markets rather than banking on tourists. “Our focus has always been the local market. I always recommend all my colleagues in the retail industry to focus on the local community because this is the market that will always stay with you. Yes, we need the tourists, but we can still survive very well with our local community here. They are the ones who will always support our businesses and grow it, regardless of them being UAE nationals or not.”

While Seddiqi concedes that there isn’t an extensive e-commerce programme operational at the retailer, he is confident that there is still a bright future for physical retail. “E-commerce is important. But I wouldn’t say that brands or retailers would depend on it one hundred per cent – it will be an extra [component to the] business. But malls will still be a very strong part of the business. I think that Dubai is still strong on brick-and-mortar.”

Ultimately, retailers – especially those that have been around for decades – know that their role today has evolved from being more than just sales representatives to powerbrokers who build reputations for brands – especially independent ones that aren’t backed by conglomerates. “A funny story that my father told me is about how we got the Audemars Piguet brand in the Seventies. My late grandfather didn’t believe in the brand because a steel watch was more expensive than a Rolex Day-Date in gold,” says Seddiqi, referring to the fact that at the time, an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak in stainless steel cost more than watches from other brands in precious metals.

“And (my grandfather) told my father that this is an expensive watch, it wouldn’t work. My father ordered a few pieces for his personal friends, and made them buy it just to prove to my grandfather that this brand can work. And today, it’s one of the strongest brands in the world.”

Seddiqi brings that lesson learnt from the Seventies up to the present day where some independent brands are facing an existential crisis. “Some brands are suffering. But it’s the power of the retailer to sustain, support and keep these brands running.”

“I was talking to my son a few weeks ago, telling him that that today Patek Philippe is almost 180 years old. And 180 years ago, it was two people who started the brand. It’s the same thing with Rolex which 115 years ago was founded by one individual.

Today, it is exactly the same story with independent watchmakers. As retailers, we have to support these independent watchmakers, because 50 years down the line, our children and grandchildren will talk about how their parents and grandparents supported these brands and created a buzz for it in the region.

“The vision that you can have as a retailer, can build a brand within the region.”

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