* Audemars Piguet, Richard Mille take stakes in franchised shops
* Aim to control image as well as margins, inventories
* Watch brands split over how best to handle distribution
* Demise of wholesalers could hurt smaller manufacturers
By Silke Koltrowitz and Sarah White
GENEVA, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Swiss watchmakers Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille are snapping up stakes in their franchised shops, seeking to tighten their grip on the sales network as a growing number of top brands ditch wholesalers.
Changes to distribution for luxury watches have lagged sectors such as groceries or fashion, with eye-watering price tags seen as a barrier to buying online and favouring a more traditional sales approach.
But trouble clearing excess inventory at multi-brand watch retailers, and the lure of better margins, is persuading some labels to cut their reliance on the third-party resellers that still account for around 75 percent of industry sales, according to analysts.
Family-owned Audemars Piguet, which has said it aimed to have only monobrand stores in three to five years’ time, is also investing in some of the around 30 franchises that already carry its name.
Out of a total 200 points of sale, it has 60 monobrand outlets but only 25 are fully-owned for now. The company is taking a majority stake in a Los Angeles franchise in an example of efforts to better control its image, Chief Executive Francois-Henry Bennahmias told Reuters.
“Between our stores in Rome and New York City a client could hear slightly different narratives, and we can’t afford that,” Bennahmias said at the SIHH trade fair in Geneva this week.
The shift in-house is not universal, with giants like privately-owned Rolex and Patek Philippe staying the course with multi-brands.
For their part, some smaller independent brands simply cannot afford the higher fixed cost and ensuing risk attached to monobrand stores.
But Richemont, owner of the Cartier and IWC brands, is among those moving more stores in-house at some of its labels. Sixty-three percent of its revenue comes from its own shops, up from 42 percent a decade ago.
Audemars said its strategy was boosting sales. These grew 10 percent last year to 1.1 billion Swiss francs ($1.11 billion) - with half coming now from monobrand stores.
“It’s huge. It’s the point of no return,” Bennahmias said.
Ultra high-end Richard Mille, with average prices of around 180,000 euros ($205,236), already derives 75 percent of sales from its 40 monobrand boutiques, many of which are franchises it has invested in, marketing director Tim Malachard said.
Launched in 2001, the label aimed to eventually phase multi-brand retailers out - it sells via 44 now - and reach 50 to 55 single-brand stores, he added.
“It allows us to get to know our clients. And there is no discounting,” Malachard said.
The industry is still reeling from a downturn, after a crackdown on luxury gift giving in China and the collapse of Hong Kong’s market that has taken time to recover.
That pushed brands like Cartier into buying back stocks languishing at distributors in recent years, to stop them being dumped at discounted prices on the so-called “grey” market.
While momentum has recovered - in spite of renewed concerns about a Chinese slowdown - firms are also tussling over how to attract younger consumers who grew up using smartphones rather than watches.
“Clients want to buy watches but they also want an experience,” said Ricardo Guadalupe, CEO of LVMH’s Hublot. It is cutting back on wholesalers too, though it expects them to still make up half of sales in the long term.
“The multi-brand retailers that used to stock 50 labels are disappearing little by little, only the big players will be left,” Guadalupe said.
For some small watchmakers, however, solo stores are an unaffordable gambit.
“Smaller independent brands cannot do without wholesale distributors,” said Marco Tedeschi, CEO of Switzerland’s RJ, which plans to produce 1,200 pieces this year, including some themed around Batman villains.
RJ is however switching to distributors stocking fewer brands, which might do more to help promote its watches, Tedeschi added.
MB&F, which makes 250 of its futuristic timepieces a year, now reaps up to a quarter of sales through a handful of art gallery joint ventures, from Geneva to Dubai - providing it with another way of reaching customers, said communications head Charris Yadigaroglou.
“Not all of the retailers will survive,” he added. ($1 = 0.9900 Swiss francs) ($1 = 0.8770 euros) (Writing by Sarah White Editing by Keith Weir)