Clearing Up A Common Misconception: Wait Lists Are NOT Chronological
We've all been there, you've added your name to a mythical "waitlist" – sometimes the call comes in days, weeks, or months. Most often, the call never comes. Why?
The modern watch market has become less of a passion-driven industry, and more of a Gordon Gekko inspired activist investment vehicle. Gone are the days of buying what you love and what you can afford. Due to stratospheric demands, waiting for the most popular models is the new normal. But do any of us know how waitlists actually work?
The New Normal
Just five years ago, watch retail was a very different business. A half-decade removed from a global recession, many authorized dealers had more than sufficient stock of some of today's hottest novelties. Chances were, you could walk into any Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, or Omega boutique and choose your desired steel sports model.
In 2019, this reality has all but vanished. Watches from Rolex, Patek Philippe, and others are commanding huge premiums on the secondary market (read HERE), and flippers are the new normal (read HERE), plus the rise of digital and social media is fundamentally changing collector's tastes, demands, and the watch market itself.
Many of the retailers I've spoken to have the same story. Every day, they're bombarded with phone calls, emails, Instagram DMs, and text messages requesting the hottest stainless-steel sports watches. Often, these requests are coming from out of state or out of the country and usually from people with whom the retailer has never had a single interaction. They all want the same thing: steel.
During a recent visit to a Manhattan boutique, I saw one hopeful buyer enter the store and while already making a U-turn, ask, “Do you guys have any steel sports Rolexes? No? Okay, bye.” He was back on the street before the revolving door even stopped spinning.
The days of highly desirable and rare precious metal complications being in vogue are over, in their place is a sort of hypebeast mentality. The new prizes are Daytonas, Nautilus, Sky-Dwellers, Aquanauts, Submariners, Hulks, GMTs (of all soda varieties, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Root Beer), and more. It's a gold rush but without the gold.
Why are these pieces so desirable? It's simple, "Instagram told me so," as one collector so eloquently put it. Don't get me wrong, passion still steers many of these collectors towards these watches. After all, they're thoughtfully designed, moderately priced luxury watches. While some may consider these $5,000-25,000 timepieces out of the realm of most collectors, most of these buyers can and will justify the cost of acquisition because of the exorbitantly high prices these watches command on the secondary markets.
The game used to be simple, you'd buy a few watches from your local retailer, build a relationship (and your savings), and once you could afford the piece you desire, you'd add your name to the "waitlist." Years ago, these lists were no more than a few people deep. Ten years ago, just about the only watch you needed to be on a waitlist for was the Rolex Daytona, a watch that has long been coveted by collectors.
The Wait List Is Now A "Wish List"
Nowadays, the game has changed. Rolex has gone so far as removing the term 'waitlist' from their authorized dealer's vocabulary. Patek Philippe is similar, also abolishing the term. In its place? A "wish list" of sorts. Those who believe they're number 12 on the list for a Rolex Daytona would be surprised to know that 99% of the time a "list" in the traditional chronological sense, doesn't exist. It's less like the DMV and more like purgatory.
Rolex and Patek Philippe have been very clear; they have no plans to increase the production of stainless steel sports models (read HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE). This creates a supply and demand chasm. On the one hand, you've made incredibly desirable timepieces coveted the world over, on the other hand, demand far exceeds supply. Creating issues for retailers, how do you get the hottest pieces to your most deserving customers?
Allocating the unicorns
At the end of the day, the term "waitlist" is a misleading relic from a bygone era. For many, it conjures thoughts of a spreadsheet numbered from one to infinity organized with the names of every person who showed an interest in the hottest of novelties set in perfect order based upon when you called. I've asked around, and this kind of chronological "waitlist" simply doesn't exist.
As we said earlier, these so-called "wish lists" are the new normal. But how can you get the retail gods to grant your wishes? The answer to that question is a bit more complicated, but it mostly boils down to building a relationship and a purchase history. When I asked one retailer about this problem, they replied, "Numerical placement will never be a thing because so many factors are in play. Relationships, other purchases in other departments within the store, referrals, all of which leads back to that whole "relationship" thing."
While Instagram defines a lot of the modern watch community's tastes, it can also serve as a detractor when it comes time to allocate a piece. As one retailer put it, "Consumers have become so transparent due to social media. We can typically see lifestyles and collecting "habits." Flippers are evident." So sorry cold callers, once the retailer has your name, they can quickly determine if you're the right kind of person for the watch. They know if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.
Typically, allocations for the hottest of novelties have been assigned before the actual watches arrive in store. Every retailer has a different formula for allocations, but usually, the watch department will assign based on merit rather than go against an actual list. Five main factors seem to go into this decision: purchase history, risk of resale, reputation, retailer relationship, and current state of the client's watch collection.
Tips For The Disheartened
The first tip is that persistence is undoubtedly NOT a virtue when it comes to seeking a 5711 or Daytona as retailers loathe incessant inquiries about pieces which they'll likely only allocate to the most deserving of customers.
So what can I tell you? Buy a lot from a retailer and you'll get what you want? Not entirely, since there will always be someone who buys more than you. The best advice I can give is to build a relationship and refer your friends. Visit your retailer, let them know you're a real person with a genuine passion for watches, don't ask for what you can't have. Purchase other goods or services (watch repair and servicing counts!).
The worst thing you can do is put your name down for a Rolex Daytona, walk away, and sit at home waiting for the call, only to be swallowed by the ensuing silence. It's highly likely that call will never come.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell and Pierre Vogel)