After having fully embraced and waited in line for the original MoonSwatch release, I thought I was done. Too much hype, too many people wanting and wearing it with whom I just didn’t relate when it comes to watch appreciation. And then came the Moonshine edition of the Mission to Neptune.
I’d just come back from Geneva, where I saw the original Neptune looking pretty great on my friend Alexis‘ wrist. When I saw the teaser for the new model, the way the golden chronograph seconds hand balances the blue scheme was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Any further resistance was dissolved by the hand being produced during the full moon of August 1st, not only the Swiss national holiday but also my wedding anniversary.
Getting in line
The Bienne HQ store opening at 10, I originally planned to get there around 6.30. Sure, some folks would be there already, but Bienne is not Singapore, Paris or even Geneva: that should be early enough to secure a watch. I packed everything I needed to be ready first thing the next day: a little folding chair, my laptop, my Kindle, some water and a few snacks.
Perhaps it was the upcoming full moon or just my excitement but, 2 hours before my alarm was set, I was fully awake at 4. Oh well, I said to myself, the weather is nice: might as well go earlier.
After some much needed coffee and a quick breakfast, I hopped into my car for the 5 minute drive to the Swatch boutique, located just between Swatch and Omega HQs. To my surprise, no one was there yet. I was even able to park right next to the entrance.
Half wondering if I was actually in the right place, I pulled out my (blue) folding chair and sat down. Two ladies from neighboring town Solothurn arrived a few minutes later, comforting me that I hadn’t made the whole thing up and that there was indeed a watch going on sale that day.
The line gradually filled up over the hours, reaching about 100 people at time of opening, at 10 am. While this is clearly less than in most other hot spots, for a town of 55,000 the ratio per capita is pretty high.
A premium waiting experience
As during the original launch of March last year, the wait was actually quite pleasant. The venue is lovely, facing green Jura hills, alongside Shigeru Ban’s futuristic Swatch HQ and the full size Lunar Module replica near the Omega boutique. The security staff was extremely courteous, handing out water bottles, and the Swatch team super relaxed and friendly. Again, a different scene than in many other parts of the world.
I won’t lie. Being first in line was super nice. A lot nicer than being second. For a simple reason: I had space in front of me. No one pushing back, no one obstructing my view into the store (staff arrived at 6 to start filling out warranty cards). The fact that I had a chair and so did the people right behind made it all very “stable”. I managed to get some work done, write most of a blog post, and get (a bit) closer to finishing a book I’ve been dragging my eyes through for a year now.
A false sense of merit
When I got my watch, I was happy for a simple reason: I really wanted it. The person who asked me straight after if I would sell it to him probably thought we didn’t speak the same language, given how stunned I looked.
As the hours went by, I kept hearing stories of people who had tried to get one but didn’t. Some who got there too late or, way worse, many who waited in line for nothing.
While still on my high, part of me was thinking: wow, this watch is truly about merit. It’s not about who you know or how much you can spend (for first world middle class, that is; I realize the cost of a MoonSwatch is, sadly, more than monthly income for most people in the world). It’s about the will, the effort, getting up early and patiently waiting in the (relative) cold for hours. More than any luxury timepiece marking an achievement in life, this is the ultimate meritocracy watch.
While of course the above is an exaggeration, I do think this is in many ways what Swatch has in mind. Swatch is by definition for everyone (same caveat as above: I lived in Sénégal for 8 years and over there, a “real” Swatch is luxury). So if Swatch is to make an exclusive model, the means of acquisition cannot be financial. It has to be something most people can afford if they set their mind to it.
Where the reasoning fall short is of course that meritocracy supposes a level playing field to start. Now let’s look at who can actually afford to go and spend 4 hours (my estimate of the minimum waiting time needed to actually get one) on a weekday, until 10 am.
Single parents? Nope. The vast majority of workers (factory, bakery, hotel, hospital, you name it)? Nope. Anyone with a medical condition preventing them from standing in the cold for hours? Again, nope.
So who is left? People like me with flexible remote working conditions and a spouse who could take kids to school, some university students and of course many others with the “right” setup. But still, we are a minority. And while I realize most people don’t see the Swatch HQ from their living room like I do, it’s still not everyone who lives within reasonable distance of a store where the watch was available.
How to fix it
Of course, when crowds are at stake, there is never a perfect solution. What could be alternatives here? Online sales is the most often suggested alternative. The problem is, we all know how wrong those can go, between bots and bugs. Moreover, you don’t really give as much of yourself clicking at an alarm-set time than patiently queuing in the street. The sense of merit, and of course the visible PR, are not the same.
Another often heard suggestion is to be straightforward about allocation and quickly tell people in the queue where the cutoff is: sure, the first few people to not make it will be frustrated, but it’s a lot better than having thousands around the world waste their time for nothing. However, it does not solve the problem of those who live far away or cannot be free at a time where most have to go to work or school.
In hindsight, what I think worked best was the post-launch phase of the original MoonSwatch: a mix of randomness and serendipity. No one (staff included) really knew when drops would come into Swatch stores. People would pop by when they could, and, if they were lucky, would find what they wanted, in a moment of surprise and joy. If not, they’d come back at some later time, increasing their odds.
What about folks who live far away from a Swatch boutique ? Well, the same principle of serendipity could apply online. Occasionally, there could be drops on the Swatch website. Not something announced or predictable, causing insane traffic and hacking, but sudden occasional availability. Here too, those who are rewarded are the ones who regularly make the effort to go and check.
No solution is perfect: some people just live closer to a store than others; some have a faster internet connection or more free time. Ultimately, we’re not talking about a fundamental human right here, so it’s OK. No one needs a MoonSwatch. But why not make the process just a bit more open, a bit more fair? While it’s hard to tell where we are in the MoonSwatch product line (will there be more? If so, how many?), it would still be nice to see other methods of distribution. They can preserve the the spirit and foot traffic, just in a more gentle way. What do you think? Any thoughts are most welcome in the comments section!