What Switzerland’s Currency Shock Means For China’s Luxury Market

Swiss watchmaker Vacheron Constantin's special-edition Year of the Goat watches. (Courtesy Photo)

Swiss watchmaker Vacheron Constantin’s special-edition Year of the Goat watches. (Courtesy Photo)

On the back of Switzerland’s surprise currency move last week, which saw a “spring-loaded franc” shoot up in value, speculation has been rife about the effects on the country’s often high-end exports. Industry insiders have been particularly worried about the implications for Chinese consumers, who have been among the biggest fans of Swiss brands in recent years.

The move, which saw the Swiss National Bank unexpectedly drop its minimum exchange rate policy—which had kept the euro from dropping below 1.2 Swiss francs since being introduced in 2011—threatens to make Swiss luxury brands even more expensive and less competitive in the already difficult China market. Once a relatively effortless export destination, China has become far more challenging for Swiss watchmakers in particular over the past two years, as Chinese government officials—wary after high-profile “outings” and spooked by Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption crusade—have cut back.

This week’s move will do nothing to stem the bleeding for Swiss watchmakers after a tough year in the Greater China market. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out last week:

[Luxury timepiece exports] to China and Hong Kong have…come under pressure because of the cooling Chinese economy and a crackdown by officials in Beijing on extravagant gift-giving.

Luxury companies also took a hit last year from roughly three months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the world’s largest export market for Swiss watches. Stores selling Swiss watches and other goods often temporarily closed as the city’s downtown shopping district was overwhelmed by demonstrators.

Additionally, as the article notes, unlike the last currency spike in 2011, Swiss watchmakers lack the luxury of simply raising prices. Four years ago, the Chinese market in particular was driven by profligate, gift-giving government officials on a global spending spree. Now—within the China market, at least—the relatively price-sensitive middle-class consumer, who has his or her eyes set on one watch rather than many, is in the driver’s seat.

Over the medium-term, the impact of the currency policy shift on Swiss brands is likely to be limited. Chinese luxury consumers continue to make an overwhelming majority of luxury purchases outside of China. And appetite for Swiss products from watches to chocolate will likely remain strong—even if it’s not at the level it was in years past—despite higher prices. Chinese shoppers have long shown that price itself is rarely an obstacle for items on which they place a quality premium.

One area in which the strong franc threatens to have an impact is tourism to Switzerland. Some 636,000 Chinese tourists visited the country in 2013, but the country has not yet cracked the top 10 overseas destinations during popular travel periods such as the Spring Festival, as Yan Xin of Ctrip told AsiaOne this week. Despite growing interest in snow skiing, Chinese tourists have yet to become an important demographic at Swiss ski resorts, and likely won’t make a beeline for Switzerland’s ski slopes for years to come. Nonetheless, the stronger franc could hurt Switzerland’s famed and sky-high-priced private schools, which have seen a strong uptick in Chinese applicants in recent years.

 

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Market Trends, Policy, Watches & Jewelry