Swiss Watch Sales Surge in U.K. as Chinese Hunt for Bargains

U.K. imports of Swiss watches surged 29 percent in the first half of the year as Chinese shoppers find that luxury timepieces are cheaper in Europe.

Italy, France and Spain also recorded gains that helped the industry eke out 0.4 percent growth in that period, offsetting a 20 percent decline in Hong Kong, the largest market, according to figures released Tuesday by the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

“The U.K. is seeing good growth from Chinese tourists,” Rene Weber, an analyst at Bank Vontobel AG in Zurich, said by e-mail. Luxury timepieces are cheaper in the U.K. than in Hong Kong, he said.

It’s a small respite for watchmakers, who’ve been buffeted by the strength of the Swiss franc versus other European currencies. The industry group pointed to a slowdown Tuesday after second-quarter exports declined 2.2 percent compared with the first quarter’s 3.2 percent advance.

Swatch Group AG, the owner of the Omega brand, and Cie. Financiere Richemont SA, which makes Cartier, have been adding staff in European shops who can speak Chinese to deal with the shifting client mix. In London’s West End shopping district, Chinese shoppers spend an average of 1,378 pounds ($2,144) per transaction, making up more than a fifth of international tourists’ spending, according to Richard Dickinson, chief executive officer of store-representative body New West End Co.

Italy’s 14 percent growth in Swiss watch imports made that market bigger than Japan in the first half. Timepieces with a wholesale price less than 200 francs ($208) showed the fastest pace of growth, the federation also said.

Greater China still represents about a fifth of the total Swiss watch market, and that region imported more than four times as many watches than the U.K., in value terms. The market has been suffering since late 2012, when China began discouraging extravagant spending among government officials.