The Piano Technician - Don't Believe Everything You Read (on a Price Tag)

Can a Buyer Actually Save Money?
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[This article appeared in Keyboard 1986] 

LAST MONTH WE SAW THAT SALES AND discounts are often phony. How, then, can a buyer actually saves money?

If you have not yet chosen a brand to buy, probably the best way to save money in the very long run is to buy the best, most durable piano that money can buy—one that will last for generations and depreciate very slowly. Naturally, the Steinway comes to mind as the best example.

Unfortunately, in the shorter (and more realistic) run, many of us can't afford a Steinway. Another tactic might be to seek out brands that are less expensive because they are less well-known, or are made in a country where labor is cheaper. Some of these brands, especially the Korean ones, are now comparable to medium-quality pianos made in America.

If you have decided on a brand of vertical piano, and have not yet chosen a particular model, the best value will often be found with the school or institutional model. They are ruggedly built, of adequate size, and cost much less because of their plain styling. Continental-style verticals are the next best value for the same reason, while American decorator-style pianos offer the least value for the money, as far as the musical instrument is concerned.

Although dealers have protected franchise territories for most of the brands they sell, sometimes those territories are not very large. It's not unusual for several dealers to be selling the same brand in a large metropolitan area. Even though sales and discounts are usually phony, prices are far from uniform. It's worth your while to shop around and negotiate. In fact, it would be foolish not to negotiate, because most price tags are inflated in anticipation of such haggling, and sometimes it's possible to get a very good deal, as the following example illustrates:
Two friends of mine went shopping for a piano on which their young son was to begin taking lessons. Having shopped around, they settled on a medium-quality console piano marketed by an American company. The piano was actually manufactured by a Korean company (as indicated by a tag on the back), but it bore the American company's name. The couple offered several hundred dollars less than the $2,600 price, expecting to negotiate. To their surprise, the salesman refused to budge. "I think it's a fair price," he said, and that was that.

Next, my friends went to another dealer, where they saw exactly the same model, in the same style and finish as the one they had unsuccessfully bargained for, except that it had the Korean, instead of the American, name on it. It was selling for only $2,300— $300 less than the identical piano with the American name. They were tempted to buy this piano, but decided that they would prefer a piano with an American name on it, even if it were not actually made here, so they continued looking.

Finally, they went to a store in another town, in which they found the same model with the American name, but, alas, not with the finish they preferred. So they made the salesman an offer: If he could get them the piano with the finish they wanted, and deliver it to their home with bench and tuning included, they would be willing to pay $2,100—and no sales tax. This may seem like an outrageous offer, but the salesman picked up the phone, called the first store the couple had visited to ascertain that they were talking about the same piano, and then accepted the offer. My friends now have in their home exactly the same instrument that they had refused to buy at $2,600. The actual cost was 25% less than that.

Just what the relationship was between the first and the last stores, and why the last store was willing to accept the low price, I don't know. Perhaps the dealer was tight for cash, and was willing to forgo some profit in order to make a sale. My point is that opportunities for negotiating a lower price are there to be had. You may not be as brash as my friends were, but you can at least ask for the lowest price at which the salesperson would be willing to sell you the piano—a more genteel and diplomatic way of asking for a discount.

The story I have told you also prompts me to add a strong word of caution about doing business this way. When you buy from a dealer that habitually sells at absurdly low prices, chances are that the pianos are not being serviced properly and that you may have trouble getting good warranty service, should you need it. Many of a dealer's costs are fixed; there is a limited number of ways to reduce costs in order to produce low prices, and too often service is the first to go. Dealers that do this are often the first to go, too. This may not matter much if you are buying one of those perfect Japanese pianos, but for any others, especially American-made models, you may end up sorry you got such a "great deal."

Here are a few more tips to consider when trying to reduce piano prices:

  • Sometimes a salesperson will offer to throw in a lamp or some piano lessons, instead of offering to discount the piano's inflated price. If these items don't interest you, say so and ask for a lower price instead.
  • Sometimes dealers offer commissions to piano teachers and technicians for referring customers, but the dealer cannot afford both to pay a commission and to offer you a big discount. If the dealer must pay a commission, it limits his or her ability to negotiate with you. Commissions make sense from a business point of view, but they present some problems ethically. How unbiased can such a referral be under those circumstances? If you are referred by a teacher or technician, you may want to ask them whether they will be receiving a commission and, if so, whether they would be willing to forgo it or split it with you.
  • If you already own a piano, the dealer may offer you a substantial trade-in allowance on a new piano. If so, however, you are less likely to be given a discount off the "list price" of the new piano. You will usually come out ahead if you sell your old piano privately, and use the money toward a negotiated price on the new piano. Actually, accepting a trade-in can be a nuisance for the dealer; many would be happy to give you a better price just to avoid having to deal with the used piano.
  • Sometimes piano technicians or re-builders also sell new pianos out of their homes or shops. Because they may not be dependent on these sales as their principal source of income, and because the pianos may be taking up extra space that would otherwise go unused, and since the homes or shops may not be located in a prime business location with a high overhead, their profit margin may be much less than that of a regular piano dealer. Sometimes the brands they sell will be little-known because, naturally, a manufacturer prefers to give a franchise to a larger dealer in a good location who can sell many pianos. As I mentioned a few months ago, little-known does not necessarily mean low-quality. One drawback, though, is that due to limited space and capital, the selection of models, styles, and finishes is bound to be limited.
  • Whether you pay cash or buy on time is unlikely to affect a piano's price. Likewise, finance rates will probably be comparable whether you finance through the dealer or on the outside, though the dealers usually finance only for a shorter term. Nonetheless, you should shop around for financing. If you're buying a very expensive piano, you may well save a bundle, over the long run, by borrowing at a lower rate on the increased equity in your home.
  • Virtually every piano on the market, except Steinway, comes with a bench included in the price. It's not an extra.

[bio]
Larry Fine is a piano technician in the Boston area. He is a registered craftsman member of the the Piano Technicians Guild.

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