When did you start learning about watches and at what point did you join your family’s business?
I joined the family business officially three years ago when we took over operation of the Panerai boutique in Aspen. Watches have always been synonymous with our family business though, so I’ve had exposure to the watch world for all of my life.
In the early days of the business, both of my parents were always working, and I spent a lot of time in the store. I still remember in grade school learning about Panerai and thinking “that is the watch that signifies you’ve made it!” It’s surreal to see where I am now, running our Panerai boutique in Aspen, and how those early experiences played into my future.
How long have you managed the Panerai boutique?
I have managed the Panerai Aspen boutique since we took over ownership in 2018.
The boutique had previously opened in 2014, in a beautiful, historic two-story brick and glass building in the heart of downtown. We have had a long-standing relationship with Panerai – my father Oliver was one of the first jewelers to bring the brand to the US in 1998 – so when the opportunity came for Aspen, it was a natural fit!
This past summer we opened our second Oliver Smith Jeweler boutique (located on the second floor above Panerai), specializing in certified pre-owned timepieces and our own line of luxury jewelry.
Last year, above the Aspen Panerai boutique, your company opened an Oliver Smith Jeweler pre-owned watch boutique. How has that been going, particularly considering it was opened in the middle of the pandemic?
I have to tell you opening during Covid was not easy… our plans must have changed eight different times relative to our strategic approach and overall execution. It has been an exercise in learning, patience, and flexibility!
That said, we were committed to the pre-owned watch market and the early returns we are seeing from client activity prove it is a market poised for continued growth. Customers walk into our store knowing they can trust our expertise and the comfort of certified authenticity creates tremendous confidence as they shop for their next timepiece. Although Aspen overall has not been as busy as previous years, we are fortunate that shoppers enjoy viewing our collection in person and are motivated to spend locally with us.
Digitally savvy retailers are making their own high-quality digital content nowadays. Your company, which also includes the original Scottsdale, Arizona location, does a good job with unique Instagram content and YouTube videos. How have these digital initiatives helped your business?
Today, and moving forward, shopping has a 360-degree approach. For example, you see an advertisement for a watch, so you go online and research reviews on YouTube or industry publications. Then you look for who’s selling the watch and many customers engage with that retailer instantly via a chat feature. A lot of “shopping” has occurred long before a customer actually enters a store.
It’s hard to quantify this approach, but we see it working with outreach from new clients. I think videos play a significant role for our future because they allow the viewer to learn so much more – about the brand, product, and who we are as a company. Our entire sales team helps with creating content so clients can learn a bit about who they’re going to be working with when they visit one of our locations!
With so many ski towns to choose from what is it about Aspen the drives the wealthy there?
The short answer is that Aspen is hard to get to yet completely worth it. It is not close to a major highway, so there are few day visitors, and this helps manage crowds and maintains the small-town charm.
Once you’ve visited Aspen you know just how magical the town is. It is tucked in the Rockies with stunning mountain peak surroundings, top-tier dining, and big-city shopping. However, it is a place to really escape from the world to rest, relax and play!
You mentioned that people are skiing in Aspen lately, which is good. With limited skiing capacity, and people less likely to travel, how has that affected footfall to the two boutiques you manage?
Like a lot of tourist towns, Aspen has struggled with a lower volume of visitors through the pandemic. Skiing has been open all winter, which is fantastic, but capacity limitations and even closures of restaurants and hotels have made it challenging for locals and tourists alike. More than ever, it is apparent that we need to offer a safe, inviting, and exceptional shopping environment to attract customers to our boutiques. We are fortunate to have a robust collection of new and pre-owned collections along with an even better staff to create a shopping experience that is worth the trip!
Are an increasing amount of your sales happening over the phone or online due to the pandemic?
In Aspen yes, we are selling more online and over the phone, although we see clients wanting to meet virtually prior to making a purchase. That personal touch sets us apart and allows us to answer questions or advise quickly instead of sending lengthy emails back and forth.
Again I think making purchases over the phone and online is becoming a part of a well-rounded shopping approach including online, social, and in person.
In addition to adjusting our sales procedures to the pandemic, we began a Zoom watch auction. This is offered exclusively to our clients and is our version of running a sale on both watches and jewelry. We have had great feedback and results, as it has proved to be a fun activity and a way to buy watches at a great price. Our next auction will be held on March 18th — anyone interested in joining should contact us via our website.
During a recent conversation with Jordan Ficklin, a master watchmaker who works with PW on technical content, I mentioned your interview and he stated that Ben Lam is a great watchmaker. Does Ben inspect all pre-owned watches in Arizona and then send them to Aspen?
Ben is a master-trained watchmaker, and his involvement depends upon the piece. All watches brought in are inspected for authenticity, overall condition, and functionality. If the watch is modern and needs repair, we will send the watch to the original manufacturer. Ben’s talents really shine in vintage pieces as he has a unique ability to procure or even create vintage parts needed to keep a watch working in its most original state.
Some stores have watchmakers on-site and others do not. I often wonder how much it matters. How often do you run into problems where you need a watchmaker on-site?
In a resort town like Aspen, I don’t think it is necessary. But in a market like Scottsdale, that has more long-term residents, offering a turnkey solution from sales, service and in-house repairs creates a convenient environment for the client. It also helps establish our credibility and customer loyalty. Having our master watchmaker provides unmatched value and is hard to come by!
What are the peak times of the year for retail sales in Aspen?
Aspen is hyper-seasonal, with peak times being in the winter and summer. People always think of the wintertime when they think of Aspen, but summer is the “secret season”!