As a curious child, Derek Dier had an unusual fascination with time. He would stare at his watch as the seconds ticked away, soaking in each moment feeling as if time was passing by at a perfectly slow pace. Growing up, Dier was also obsessed with collecting anything he could get his hands on including stamps, rocks and other items he found trawling through flea markets and garage sales while accompanied by his mother. Little did he realize that one day he would turn his passion for collecting things into an eCommerce business where he would supply rare items to discerning collectors.
When Dier was 16 years old, he began building a personal watch collection. At the time he made a rare acquisition: "I found a Canadian Rolex Oyster in a shoebox at a flea market when I was about 16 and that started me collecting vintage watches." Dier adds, "I paid $2 for it." Some of his other early hauls included 1960's models by Gruen, Omega and Bulova in steel. "They were abundant at garage sales for $1 to $2. It was also common to find Hamilton military issue watches at flea markets for around $20. In the early 1980's, solid gold watches of any kind were considered the most valuable, as watch collecting was in its infancy. A clean Rolex Submariner 5512 or 5513 with box and papers was $350 when found used back then." Dier explains that very same model would easily fetch $10,000 now.
Turning passion into profit
From the ages of 16 to 24, Dier considered watch collecting a hobby, and an expensive one at that. "You would trade one watch for another -- didn't pay as much attention as to whether you made money, but rather wanted to acquire a more desirable or better condition watch than the one you had prior." However, he regularly made the mistake of overpaying for watches, selling pieces for well under market value, and breaking plenty as he learned more about the value and inner workings of timepieces.
"I had a 1930's Rolex Prince once. I dropped it on the tile floor in my kitchen and it flew to pieces," Dier laments. "The movement was badly damaged and that was a real hit seeing as I paid $5,000 for it. Not to mention, the numerous watches I broke over the years trying to fix them." Nearly a decade after Dier first fell in love with watches, he began turning a profit on his vintage acquisitions. Though, the process of buying and selling watches was very much analog during those days. Finally, in 1998, Dier launched a website under the URL WatchesToBuy.com.
Building a business in the early days of the Internet
"In the early days," Dier recalls, "it was about setting up a website and learning how to navigate selling on the Internet." Online commerce was a completely new thing, yet plenty of people were open to it. "I was able to sell a watch within minutes [of posting it online.]" With web design at its infancy and thus best practices sparse, Dier had his own ideas for crafting a compelling user experience. "During the earliest days of the Internet, I really didn't model my website after any other. I tended to keep it very simple. I always looked at it like a menu at a restaurant; if you could glance at it get a couple of previews with photos and a brief description, I figured that's what people wanted. Most websites at the time seem to scroll down the page on and on and on I wanted a one-page easy menu-like appearance. I figured you had to [capture] their attention quickly and photos were the best way to do that."
That said, Dier was also aware of the fact that in the "dial-up" days, too many pictures meant painfully slow load times which would theoretically cost him customers. But he chose to ignore that because he knew that online shopping was intimidating for buyers online. Customers who were willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a product they have not yet seen in person wanted to accurately view the different items they could purchase. "Most other sites had descriptions and [fewer] photos, as photos took time to load due to the low bandwidth 'dial-up' connection in the early days. People would complain my website took a long time to load, but in the end they bought the item.... and really, it's a detailed picture that sells the client."
And Dier has continued to focus on ways to create a fully informed purchasing experience for shoppers and effectively help his products sell themselves. "To this day, I concentrate on photography above everything else. I think I was one of the first to do this... most watch pictures on the Internet were terrible. Photography was really also my passion at that time, so taking a great picture of a watch was part of the enjoyment. The better the photograph, the quicker the watch sold. I was also one of the first to stitch photos all together to create one collage, that way the client didn't have to look at 5 different pictures of a watch -- only one. I still do it that way to this day. Most other websites did not bother showing side angles or the movement inside. I always made a point of that. It reduced the amount of questions and limited the email chat -- people would just hit the 'Buy It Now' button."
Prioritizing the customer experience to grow organically
For the most part, Dier's business has grown without major PR coverage, a large advertising budget or strategic partnerships. His site has always ranked well for targeted search terms, and customers that purchased a watch from WatchesToBuy.com regularly returned and emailed their friends about it. Word-of-mouth was huge for the business. Dier credits much of his relative success to an enterprise sales-like approach which mandates providing customers with lightning fast service. Quick responses, he noticed, instill a lot of trust in even the most reluctant buyers. Research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2011 found that online leads have an incredibly short lifespan. According to sales experts and academics James B. Oldroyd, Kristina McElheran and David Elkington, "Firms that tried to contact potential customers within an hour of receiving a query were nearly seven times as likely to qualify the lead (which we defined as having a meaningful conversation with a key decision maker) as those that tried to contact the customer even an hour later--and more than 60 times as likely as companies that waited 24 hours or longer."
Of course, some of what he learned came from his experience throughout his 20-year career as a real estate agent in London, Ontario in Canada. Selling watches was almost like selling houses in that the rep who helped the buyer find exactly what they were looking for in a timely manner almost always closed the sale. A decade after launching WatchesToBuy.com though, Dier decided to quit his day job to manage his eCommerce shop. And now, the business employs Dier and his wife who manages operations. At 50 years young, Dier has nearly 35 years worth of experience studying timepieces, which has made him a bit of a celebrity among rare and vintage watch enthusiasts.
Most months, WatchesToBuy.com generates nearly 105,000 visitors. During its peak period around Christmas, the site averages 5,000 visitors per day. All this with minimal advertising; his site's traffic fueled exclusively by search engine optimization and word-of-mouth.
Dier's reputation has also helped him secure special opportunities to outfit actors in popular movies and TV shows. So far, Dier has supplied vintage watches for cast members of Mad Men in seasons 5, 6 and 7, to actors in the TV series Magic City, and to talent in the Jersey Boys movie. Dier remembers, "I was sitting at home in the backyard one day and the prop master from Mad Men[, Ellen Freund,] called me. They had been looking for Omega to supply watches but simply didn't get a call back from the company. I was next in line based on their Google search and the style of my inventory. She saw I had a passion for watches and thought I would work hard to provide what they need it quickly."
Tips for future eCommerce store owners
What has sustained Dier's business all these years though is his increasing knowledge of vintage watches and his disciplined focus on creating an aesthetic experience that buyers actually understand -- and not necessarily one that follows contemporary web design best practices.
Dier says, "My advice to any emerging eCommerce entrepreneur is to pay special attention to the visual appearance of the website. Build the content around that. Be original in your design. Remember the first thing people see is the page they land on: how it's laid out, how easy it is to understand what you're selling and how 'inviting' it looks. These are the most important things in my opinion. The same way you look at someone's attire when you first meet them.... we often judge by appearance. If we don't like what we see, we move along."
Image credits: WatchesToBuy.com's Instagram and website
Danny Wong is the co-founder of Blank Label, an award-winning luxury menswear company. He also leads marketing for Receiptful, a platform to supercharge all customer interactions for eCommerce stores, and Tenfold, a seamless click-to-dial solution for high-performance sales teams. To connect, tweet him @dannywong1190 or message him on LinkedIn. For more of his clips, visit his portfolio.