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The most obvious way to guarantee you are getting an authentic watch is to visit an authorized dealer of the brand. These authorized dealers can not offer the value from reduced pricing that many consumers look for. Also, the industry is known for high employee turn-over, so many of these salespeople are not as well educated as they should be for if you are paying retail.
Many people are aware of much better deals that can be found on authentic Swiss watches on the Internet... But that can be scary since you usually must pay for the watch ahead of time, sight unseen.
Message forums, auctions, and on-line dealer websites are the 3 primary sources for finding deals on the web.
On dealer websites, look for things like testimonials, site reviews, and ratings such as those found on E-Bay or Pricegrabber. Another tip is to use Who Is to investigate the domain name or Alexa to check the page rank.
Message forums are generally individuals selling their watches. Some of the best prices can be found here, but these sellers are usually the most difficult to build trust with. Also, these individuals will generally need payment with some sort of cash equivalent, so there is no recourse from the credit card companies if the watch does not show up... Or if it arrives in a condition other than they stated... Or if it's the wrong watch all together.
The message forums are a good place to find respectable dealers, or post a question about a dealer you are interested in dealing with. Most of the on-line dealers we are aware of have been selling on the web for more than 5 years now. They should be able to offer references. Rotating inventory and a regularly updated site are also good signs. Watch out for sites that have pictures that appear they were scanned from a catalog. Unique pictures of the watches, from different angles shows what you will actually receive if you order from them... And that they actually have the watch in their possession. Another thing to watch out for is pieces with the serial number removed. We have more information on that practice below.
One thing to keep in mind, the credit card companies are on the consumer's side. If there is a genuine dispute, you can generally get the funds credited back to your account.
There are multiple ways watches can get off the intended distribution path. The distributors themselves are often the source. There are a few reasons they will do this. If a group of items has been discontinued, or slightly updated with a newer version, they will need to move the older versions out the backdoor. This allows them to clear up capital and make room for new watches and is a common practice. If the distributor has too many of a certain watch due to sales expectations not being met, they'll again move them out the backdoor. They will typically sell a complete lot to one wholesale dealer who then pieces up the lot and sells it to various Internet dealers who sell to consumers. The end result is a fully authentic Swiss watch, at a much better price.
Some dealers have connections with authorized dealers, and can order watches directly from them. This is not a practice the watch manufactures approve of, as these authorized dealers are supposed to be selling them only in their brick and mortar stores. Most manufactures will state on their websites that they do not have any dealers on the Internet. These items will often get the name of "Grey Watches". In order for the authorized dealer to stay out of trouble with the manufacturer, they will remove the serial number from the watch, which does more than just invalidating the warranty. Any sort of after-sales work on the watch by the manufacturer will not be possible, even if you are willing to pay full price for the services. Most companies will not even recognize the item as legitimate and will return it to you without even looking at it.
The clearest benefit is that they can offer you the complete manufactures warranty. For many brands, these dealers will have access to the entire line of that brand. However, due to limited display case space, you will usually just see a small portion of the different styles. If they did not have the watch you wanted, they would have to order it for you, often with a deposit down... And then you are getting the watch sight unseen. If the watch is at the main US distributor, they should be able to get it in for you pretty quick, but if the watch needs to be ordered from Switzerland, you might end up waiting a while. Certain styles are in high demand, with a low production so these dealers will have a waiting list... And if your local dealer is not up in their sales performance with a particular brand, the manufacturer will often divvy up their high demand watches to their best-selling stores.
Authorized dealers should have more information at their disposal from the manufacturers, but that does not mean they absorb it. Nothing can beat having a great in-store experience where you ask a dozen questions, and the salesperson honestly and knowledgeably answers all of them. That is what you should expect when you go into these stores and pay retail. However, salespeople are often on commission, so honesty can get left to the side, or they'll just make something up if they don't know the answer.
To find authorized dealers in your area, check the manufactures website. Some brands have very few stores in the states.
E-Bay is one source many people would think of, even if they had no intention to trust the seller. If you do buy from E-Bay, just make sure they have a high and consistent feedback rating. Some people and groups will create multiple accounts which all give each other positive feedback to boost their rating. Rating under 10 are to be considered very risky... But even if a seller gets a rating above 100, they could have done it with smaller items, just so they can perform one big sweep of pricey fraudulent auctions at the end... Their account will be deactivated soon after the fraud is reported, but then it might be too late. There are also reports of bogus Escrow companies, but we have no information on that.