By Silke Koltrowitz
ZURICH (Reuters) - Swiss watch brand Audemars Piguet wants to totally control the distribution of its luxury watches, cutting out third-party multibrand retailers, within three to five years, its head told Reuters, adding the integration would boost sales.
"We'll accelerate the consolidation process to arrive at a totally integrated retail network," Chief Executive Francois-Henry Bennahmias said in reply to emailed questions. "That should happen within three to five years.
"Since the beginning of the year, we've seen double-digit sales growth. We were already close to one billion Swiss francs in sales last year, we'll easily exceed it," he said, adding this was also a consequence of the retail integration.
Swiss watch brands from independent Audemars Piguet to listed Swatch Group <UHR.S> and Richemont <CFR.S> are trying to get a firmer grip on their distribution by increasing sales via monobrand stores -- proprietary or run by franchise partners -- and their late but determined push into e-commerce is also accelerating the development.
Bennahmias said Audemars Piguet, which competes with Swatch Group's Omega and Richemont's Cartier brands, would launch its online store in 2019 at the latest, but others have moved faster.
Most Richemont brands have e-boutiques or sell via the group's Net-a-porter or Mr Porter online sales portals, with Cartier being the latest brand to launch a permanent offer on the two sites on Aug 29.
Selling watches directly to customers allows brands to capture the retailer's high mark up, better manage inventory levels and gather data on end customers.
The biggest Swiss watch brand, Rolex, is however staying on the sidelines so far, with two Rolex retailers telling Reuters the brand had no plans at this stage to sell online. Rolex would only confirm it did not currently have an e-boutique.
Third-party multibrand retailers are still the dominant sales channel for Swiss watches, but that is bound to change.
"By 2023, we estimate that around 27 percent of Swiss watches, in value terms, will be sold directly by watch brands versus around 9 percent today," Morgan Stanley said in a report.
Richemont Chief Financial Officer Burkhart Grund told investors on a call last November that the group believed the traditional wholesale watch trade would over time disappear.
Richemont had 1,123 directly operated boutiques in 2017/18 that, together with the brands' online stores, contributed 63 percent to group sales, including both watches and jewellery.
Morgan Stanley estimates that retail penetration for Swatch Group, known for its Omega and Breguet brands, is only about 30 percent.
The brands' efforts to take distribution into their own hands -- also illustrated by Richemont creating a senior executive role last year to coordinate its watch brands' distribution strategies -- have led to increased pressure on traditional multibrand retailers.
Big watch retailers like Switzerland's Bucherer or Britain's The Watches of Switzerland, previously known as Aurum Holdings, are expanding internationally and have swallowed smaller competitors, notably in the United States.
Bennahmias said he thought consolidation would continue and Audemars Piguet could also consider acquiring retailers. "That could come up on our radar screen," he said.
(Reporting by Silke Koltrowitz, editing by John revill)