Watches remain a hot item for airport's longest-serving merchant

Ben Cohen checks the time on a Skagen Denmark watch. Cohen has operated a cart in Terminal B for 16 years.
Ben Cohen checks the time on a Skagen Denmark watch. Cohen has operated a cart in Terminal B for 16 years.
Posted: October 24, 2011

David Boreanaz, Philly guy and star of TV's Bones, was here catching a flight when he stopped at the Time to Fly kiosk in Philadelphia International Airport's Terminal B and bought a watch.

It was a two-minute transaction: Boreanaz, dressed in jeans and sneakers, had been in Philadelphia for the film premiere of The Mighty Macs at the Kimmel Center and to see his family - mother Patti and father Dave Roberts, the former Channel 6 (WPVI-TV) weatherman.

Before getting on the plane, Boreanaz bought a $99 G-Shock water-resistant sports watch for his son.

"He was looking for something reliable that his son can play sports with, shower, and jump in the pool with, and do anything and everything with," said Ben Cohen, who sells 140 G-Shock styles.

For Cohen, 52, it was all in a day's work: For 16 years, he has operated a cart at the airport selling watches - more than 1,000 watches in stock, from $25 to $900, most in the $50-$200 range.

In a digital age of cellphones, iPhones, BlackBerrys, and laptops, who buys a watch?

Lots of people.

"I sell image, I don't sell time. I focus on the best-selling watches, and getting them here as soon as possible," said Cohen, who came to the city from Israel when he was 25.

"When you hear on the same day three or four people talking about a certain watch, you know something big is going on," he said. "It could be because they watched Dancing With the Stars or American Idol, and one of the judges had it on his wrist."

About a year ago, Oprah Winfrey was wearing a white ceramic watch by Michael Kors, "and all of a sudden everybody wanted it." Cohen phoned his suppliers and got the $495 Oprah watch shipped immediately.

"Television is a big way a lot of styles are set," he said. "Also, the watch industry works from the top to the bottom. If Rolex makes a new style watch for $10,000 and Gucci makes something for $3,000, the other manufacturers will make something similar."

Of about 35 leased retail kiosks at the airport, Time to Fly has been there the longest, since 1995.

Despite the sluggish economy and the craze for mobile phones and Internet devices, Cohen sells more wristwatches every year.

Sales in 2011 so far are up 42 percent, and rose 24.3 percent in 2010, 24.9 percent in 2009, and 11.3 percent in 2008, said marketing director Anna DiGregorio, of Marketplace Philadelphia Management, which leases airport concession space.

"He really cares about the business, he cares about the quality, and he's here every day," she said.

With the heightened security since September 2001, passengers come to the airport earlier - and have more time to shop.

"They have disposable income because they are traveling, on vacation, or business," DiGregorio said.

Cohen learned about watches when he worked in the merchandise close-out business in the early 1990s. Later, he sold inexpensive "non-brand-name" watches to jewelers, and to the public at shows in hotels, hospitals, and convention centers.

But he saw the same customers again and again and wanted more turnover and diversity. So he opened in the airport near Gate B1. Initially, Cohen sold watches priced between $10 and $40, gradually moving to high-end brands.

"You'd think with the recession, cheaper watches would be easier to sell," he said. "Instead I went to watches that a person looking says, 'I must have this watch. It is so beautiful, and I must get it now because who knows if I can find it somewhere else?' "

Cohen sells designer names including Michael Kors, Diesel, Kenneth Cole, Nautica, and Anne Klein. He said he had the largest selection of Skagen Denmark watches in one location on the East Coast.

"The traffic in my terminal is mostly businesspeople," he said. "Most of my customers work in pharmaceuticals and high-tech - anything in the computer world - and health care and insurance. They travel a lot.

"I'm selling a style. I'm selling first impressions. If they already have a watch, why would they buy another one, unless I am giving them something they don't have?"

Cohen described his business as small - "I make a living." His wife, Jodie, is a media buyer and computer programmer, but she also handles the bookkeeping for Time to Fly, which is open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., every day of the year. The company employs about five people.

"I target to the crowd that is here. I have dressy watches. I have also sport watches. I have smaller ones and bigger ones," he said. "Today, the fashion goes in two directions: the ultraslims and the very big, bulky watches.

"Sometimes, I have customers who say, 'How did you find this watch? I can't even find it on the Internet.' "


Airport watch-seller Ben Cohen talks about the customers he attracts at his shop at Philadelphia International Airport. Go to www.philly.com/business


Contact staff writer Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

 

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