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Watchmaker keeps up with Internet time

Charlie Squires's business has been brisk since he put
his old-fashioned operation on-line

Special to The Globe and Mail,
Thursday, February 3, 2000

Walking into Charlie Squires's watchmaker shop in London is like walking into a watch.It's a miniature shop, only two metres wide by five metres deep, located in a former stairwell in a corner mini-mall, and it's a precision instrument with every component fitted exactly into its proper place, like a Swiss mechanical watch. But it's also akin to a Japanese quartz watch: highly computerized, and a Lilliputian portal into the world of Internet retailing.

None of this is evident right away when you open the steel-barred door and immediately find yourself in front of the counter of Squires Watches. On the far side of the counter, at his workbench with his optical visor in place, 47-year-old Mr. Squires looks like an old-time watchmaker. It's only when he flips up his visor to register a sale that a transformation takes place.

A computer keyboard slides out from under his workbench and he swivels slightly to stare intently at a spot somewhere in front of your navel. He's looking at a computer screen tucked beneath his display counter, accessing your customer profile, checking his inventory and preparing to bill you for purchases or repairs.

And at the end of the day, when Charlie Squires walks 500 metres up the street to the house that he shares with a dental technician named Diana, he switches on another computer and becomes, selling watches and repair services over the Internet to customers across Canada.

If you're living on Vancouver Island and want Mr. Squires to fix your watch, he'll arrange to have it picked up and delivered by courier. If you want to know how the repairs are coming along, you can find out simply by logging on to his Web site and typing in your repair order number.

Business in the shop and on the Web site is so good that Mr. Squires will move out of his tiny quarters next summer into space four times larger in London's upscale Richmond Row shopping area.

The new store will contain three areas for sales, repairs and Internet operations. In the Internet section, customers will be able to browse through his entire on-line catalogue, negotiate prices directly with him and place an order on-line if he doesn't have the item in stock.

Eventually he plans to offer a listing on his Web site to clients with old watches for sale on consignment, taking a digital picture of the watch and including it with a written description in his on-line catalogue before the client leaves the store.

Mr. Squires was a Grade Five student in London when he took apart his first watch and decided that he wanted to be a watchmaker. After graduating from a now-defunct three-year watchmaking program at Toronto's George Brown College in 1974, Mr. Squires returned to London to do freelance watch repairs for local jewellers. After a decade, he grew tired of collecting only 50 per cent of the proceeds and went into business for himself.

About three years later, he bought his first computer, a 286, and took an introductory computer course at Fanshawe College in London. Then he purchased a database-creation program and started to create his own business software. Putting together his own database wasn't easy but Mr. Squires thought it was worthwhile "because I had total control over it."

In 1988 he upgraded to a 386 computer, since then replaced by two Pentium IIs, one at the shop and the other at home.

That same year he bought an accounting program called AccPac Easy and started to move away from his self-created database toward standard software.

In 1997, a friend's son who had designed some Web pages as part of his high school program undertook to create a Web site for Squires Watches. These three pages rapidly multiplied when Mr. Squires bought Microsoft's FrontPage 98 and began to create his own pages. now has more than 100 pages containing hyperlinks to manufacturers, new and used watch catalogues, information on repairs, technical tips and -- inexplicably unless you know that Mr. Squires cycles 50 kilometres daily when he's in training -- a section devoted entirely to the London Centennial Wheelers, his racing club.

But this all took time. It wasn't until last summer that the Web site was fully operational and taking orders. The number of weekly visitors since July has risen to 125 from 25. So far Mr. Squires has sold only about a dozen watches to on-line customers in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and British Columbia.

He's had inquiries from the United States where his prices are more than competitive but he hesitates to sell there without a bank providing secure credit card processing. Right now he simply takes credit card information from on-line customers and processes it himself. So far all the customers have been honest.

Up to this point, Mr. Squires believes that the most important result of his Web site has been advertising rather than sales. This year he dropped his $190-a-month display ad in the local Yellow Pages for a few lines, at one-sixth the price, giving just the name of his shop and its Internet address.

People who access the Yellow Pages on-line can simply click on the address to reach his Web site. Many of his local customers now learn of the shop through the site, which has a map showing exactly how to find it in the city.

Although Mr. Squires now uses off-the-shelf software, he still manufactures his own views about the future of Internet commerce. He believes that the rapid growth will level off and perhaps even decline "because people still want personal service and quality" particularly when buying high-end products.

He draws an analogy from his own field where Swiss-made mechanical watches are enjoying a comeback with affluent customers after years of being overshadowed by cheaper Japanese quartz watches based on computer chips.

"People are getting tired of replacing batteries every year or two and throwing out watches when the electronics stop functioning," he claimed. "More and more of them want a mechanical watch that will last a lifetime and longer if you take care of it.

"Anyway, I prefer mechanical watches," he confesses, looking up from his workbench and pushing the computer keyboard out of sight. "A mechanical watch is the closest thing to a human being. It has a heart that ticks."
Peter Desbarats ( is a London author and journalist

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