One Way to Tell an Honest Piano Dealer

Most honest piano dealers believe in the principle of disclosure, at least as far as they are capable or knowledgeable. They will usually frankly tell you which of their pianos are considered the high-quality ones, which ones are simply “a good value”, and which are mainly “furniture” (or P.S.O.’s: Piano-Shaped-Objects). Very seldom will you find all or even a large portion of the available brands under one roof: most well-established dealers try to keep their inventory down to from 3 to perhaps 5 (if they are a large dealership) “proven” piano lines, or brands. (“Proven” is usually determined by such criteria by how well a brand sells, or competes with other instruments for sale at competing dealers’; how well it fits its price tier or niche; how much profit margin there is in it, after all the bills have come in; and how trouble-free it is, service- or warranty- wise, for the dealer.) Usually these brands or lines fit specific marketing tiers or price points: generally there is an “economy” or price leader line, a “good quality” line, and then a “high quality” line for artists or serious musicians. (Some very large companies like Yamaha, Young Chang, Kawai, and Baldwin have extensive enough product lines that they can try and cover all the bases for the dealer. Recently, however, Baldwin, recognizing that the public tends to get confused if a brand name is associated with a wide range of different qualities, assigned different brand names to its lesser quality pianos, and saved the Baldwin name for the better ones. Steinway, also, is doing virtually the same thing now with its “economy” pianos. More about this later.)

Few dealers carry brands that are generally perceived to compete on the same quality level, or more brands than absolutely necessary to cover their different price points: It’s hard enough to keep informed and up-to-date on all the new models and features in the brands they do carry.

Dealers usually have to pay interest on pianos that stay on the floor longer than a few weeks or months, so it pays to keep only the fastest moving items around. Also, having more selection in a showroom than absolutely necessary often tends to confuse buyers and delay sales, as folks take more time to deliberate over a greater number of choices. Grand pianos consume a large amount of floor space, and verticals, on the other hand, while not taking up as much showroom real estate, often have very low profit margins, so dealers try and make sure that they only carry models of each that will move quickly.

Every piano you see on a dealer’s floor has had to be uncrated and unpacked, tuned, regulated, voiced and have the case cleaned and polished, all at dealer expense (they don’t just come that way from the factory). Not all dealers do this necessary prep work to bring the piano up to “showroom” condition, and a common customer complaint today is that it’s hard to find new pianos on dealers’ floors that are in tune, regulated, or voiced properly. New pianos require more frequent maintenance than ones that are a few years old: New strings are stretching and new felts are settling in. The significance of this for the dealer is that he wants to get the piano in and out in a minimum of time, before he has to pay additional interest or pay his staff to do additional tunings and tweaking. What this usually translates into is a situation where the dealer is constantly having to unpack and move inventory and where it’s not in his interest to do a lot of prep on the piano before it goes out. This however, is in direct conflict with the needs of the customer for a piano to be at it’s best at the point of sale so he/she can make an informed decision about the instrument’s quality.

There are a few ways that dealers commonly get around this conflict. Some brands of instruments (notably those made in Japan or Germany) come a lot better prepped from the factory than those made in other countries (including the U.S.A.). Many dealers have switched to Japanese or German piano lines simply because they have to do far less work on the piano when it comes in. Piano makers in these (high touch) countries seem to have a completely different ethic about how their products should arrive and about first impressions. Pianos made in these two nations are often shipped in a hermetically sealed foil bag and frequently arrive fresh out of the packing crate in tune (!) and needing very little dealer attention. When certain dealers decided to give Japanese or German brand pianos a try, they were often amazed at how little work they had to do to the pianos compared with what they were getting from the U.S. manufacturers. Many of them discontinued the U.S. brands and never went back, simply because they didn’t want to be bothered with all the dealer prep that the U.S. manufacturers were expecting them to do.

Other dealers tried “nailing a piano to the floor”. They would have one “demo” instrument that they had done all the tuning, voicing, and fine regulating on, which would not be for sale, but which would be used to sell other pianos off of. The problem with this approach is that many piano customers have learned that there are subtle yet significant differences between pianos of even the same year, make, and model; and thus they expect to be able to hear and experience the exact instrument they are getting, so this strategy doesn’t always work. It only takes one customer insisting “No, I want this (the demo) piano,” (and all the work the dealer has put into it) and then the dealer has to start all over again.

Because of this expectation, the tradition with most better dealers is: unless you specifically ask for one “still in the crate,” or with a special finish, or one having to be “special-ordered,” you are usually sold a piano off the floor: one that you can see, hear, and feel. Even if they do special-order you a piano, or sell you one “from the warehouse” or “still in the crate”, the better dealers will usually set it up and prep it, and will want to have you come and inspect it before it goes out, to make sure they have prepared it to your satisfaction.

Still other dealers skirted the prep problem by saying “We always do the final tuning and adjustments (voicing etc.) in the home.” While there are legitimate reasons for this (pianos usually do have to be tuned again shortly after the move, and final voicing and some touch-up regulation and adjustments really should be done, in, and with reference to, the piano’s final destination) nevertheless, many dealers were misusing it, and doing little prep, or in many cases, nothing at all, to the piano until it arrived in the customer’s home. The glaring problem with this is that often neither the dealer nor his staff had even bothered to check out, or even look at, a piano before it was shipped to the customer; and the piano would sometimes arrive, in the home, with factory defects or concealed shipping damage. Then there would be a very embarrassing situation where the dealer had to take the piano back, and customer confidence would be severely undermined.

The reason that many dealers can get away with behavior like this is because too many piano customers today simply don’t know what kind of service is possible, or what to expect.

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