Spotlight On Piano Institutional Sales
For Meridian Music’s Craig Gigax, he’ll keep up with the Joneses, sure—he’s just not waiting for them.
“Mr. and Mrs. Jones aren’t walking into our showroom lately, and they aren’t responding to our outside sales events like the usually do, so the emphasis today is on institutional sales,” Gigax says. “Without it, we’d have had a very tough couple of years.”
“There is definitely more of a focus on institutional business now, and I think that should be the case for everybody who wants to survive,” says Brandon Murphy of M. Steinert and Sons. “In the past, institutional sales have been a bonus, but now we’re really targeting the schools.”
Tony Prichard of L.A.’s Keyboard Concept explains the unique allure pianos have for a school: “The piano is one of the very few instruments that the students aren’t expected to furnish themselves. If you play clarinet, it’s your instrument – even something like the tuba, the school only supplies a locker for it. But a piano needs to be there, and so by extension it becomes a potential for recruitment. You tour a potential student through your facility and you see a lot of nice looking, nice sounding new instruments as opposed to some beat up Baldwin from the World War II era, and it’s going to make an impression.
“So spending money on these pianos is as important as spending big money on certain professors.”
And it good times and bad, the money is found to do it. If the retailer goes after it.
“Slow Gestation Period”
Meridian Music was founded in October 1988, but its roots date back to 1963 when Richard Gigax accepted a position with Steinway & Sons as a District Sales Manager. Today, Meridian Music is led by Craig Gigax, Richard’s son. Meridian Music also represents Yamaha.
“It’s a slow gestation period,” Gigax says of the institutional sales process. “If we go back to the ‘glory years’ of the past, the period around 1998 to 2000, there were plenty of solid sales people who were million-dollar writers. As the business began to decline, it became more and more difficult to hit that number, as there has been a 35 percent decline in the overall piano market since 2000.”
And that’s had to be made up somewhere.
Gigax says they’ve gotten increasingly serious about institutional sales and brought some experience to the table for it. Prior to coming into this business after his father passed away, Gigax spent 19 years in outside sales in the semiconductor industry, which he says conditioned him to be proactive and comfortable making cold calls to end users. He stresses his staff needs to be “proactive and aggressive” in this area.
Gigax says he is “blessed” that he’s a Steinway dealer. His local competition has other brands, and “they tend to resort to folk lore and spin to make their point, whereas I have the endorsement of the Van Cliburns of the world.” Success stories include Ball State University, which became the first all-Steinway school in the state. He also says he believes Indiana University has the largest inventory of Steinways anywhere in the U.S., “maybe the world. And they understand the quality of the Steinway because they have Steinways still being used on their campus that were made in the 1890s!”
Keyboard Concepts has been in the Southern California area for over 50 years, and today there are five locations. They deal in Yamaha, Bosendorfer, Schimmel, Knabe & Co., Pearl River, and Piano Disc products. Tony Prichard has been in the business for 15 years now, and last year he assumed the title of director of institutional sales.
His organization’s increased attention to institutional sales is “a necessity. It’s the difference between a homeowner wanting but not needing a new piano, and a school needing one. For the homeowner, it’s a luxury that lately has been one of the first things crossed off the list.”
Prichard acknowledges that they are going against the “all Steinway school” concept, and they do appeal to the desire of some music schools to offer more variety for their professors and students. At the moment they are working with a music school in Southern California that is building a new music facility, and the proposal is on the table for a storage area for three nine-foot concerts: a Steinway, a Yamaha, and a Bosendorfer.
Prichard also discussed the “loaner” program, which seems to be falling out of favor for at least some administrators. The idea of lending a music school say 20 pianos, then at the end of the year selling them at one of the school sales has some drawbacks: First, the sales themselves seem to be less popular then they use to. Secondly, a lot of schools find it not to the benefit of the school’s image to hosts these kind of events. Finally, there’s the physical reality of the needs of the instruments itself. Upon delivery they naturally need to be set up, then time is needed as the wood and strings get used to that particular environment. Sometimes that can take a while. Then once they get settled in they are gone, and the entire process starts over again. Yet “sometimes they are a necessary evil.”
Prichard said of all their product offerings, the Disklavier is a staple for institutions.
“Music schools want to be seen as ‘technology forward,’ and the opportunities to teach with the instrument are many,” Prichard reveals. “To name just one example, jazz pianist and professor Shelly Berg at University of Southern Californiawas able to give a student in New York lessons from his studio at the school because of the Disklavier Mark IV.”
Piano Distributors, with eight stores in Florida and another five in North Carolina, opened an operation in St. Louis in 2006. Run by Bill and Sandy Boyce, they came to town when the Yamaha dealership became available after the demise of the Ludwig-Aeolian store that had roots going back to 1876. The Boyce’s put together a strong sales team immediately, a new storefront in a tony suburban neighborhood with over 200 pianos displayed in 12 rooms. The operation includes a 100 seat recital hall made available to their local area piano teachers.
Dan Onnen has 30 years experience in the business and is currently the St. Louis Piano Distributor’s operation’s manager. He credits Alla Alperin, who was focused on institutional when she was at Ludwig-Aeolian before she joined Piano Distributors, as keeping the store strongly represented in the educational community despite being somewhat “new” to the area. Her long-time roots, knowledge of the area’s music schools, and respect with area teachers has helped the organization be strong in this area.
Piano Distributors St. Louis has had notable success already. “We have placed Clavinovas and acoustic pianos at the Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville (Ill.) and the St. Charles Community College,” Onnen says. “Also, we put some Clavinovas at Washington University Music School,” which is one of the most respected music schools in the country. He adds that the Clavinovas are especially popular in piano labs at the music schools and universities in the bi-state region, as the teacher is able to use a console to listen in on any individual student while the entire class in practicing.
He too says that they are focusing more on institutional sales as a whole, and the Yamaha P22 upright is especially popular. Onnen says they just placed a large order with a local school.
That said, Onnen admits that many schools prefer the Steinway 9′ concert grand for the recital, but “for a lot of teachers, they seem to prefer Yamahas in their personal studios. Also, while the Steinway B is popular, it’s also very expensive, and the Yamahas offer a good value.”
Finally, the preference might be shifting, he says. He points out that he’s seeing a lot of younger teachers coming up through the ranks that are familiar with Yamaha, preferring it, and know that it’s a quality instrument. “And they are able to spread the budget allowance with their purchases of Yamahas.”
Those without patience need not apply.
Gigax says he’s worked with some universities that may take 10, 12 years to raise the funds to get what they want. And he’s seen them get fewer pianos at a time rather than compromise and get more of something other than a Steinway.
Murphy too says the majority of these sales take at least a year, sometimes more.
“Sometimes it’s quick, sure,” says Piano Distributor’s Dan Onnen. “But more often it can take years.”
Prichard spends his time mostly cold calling (“warm calling whenever possible”), and relies on that old rule of thumb for this type of sale – that it takes a minimum of six calls to make a sale or “even get started on a sale.”
Prichard has a sharp eye—along with a sense of fun—about exactly what he has to do to make a successful sale. “The challenge is first to put together a really good, comprehensive plan that the music teacher can use to sell the administration on. The teachers of course are very excited at the idea of new Yamaha pianos, and for them, it’s like a ‘kid’ who wants the ‘toy’ – they want it!” he smiles. “So then you’re working with them helping them convince the ‘parent’ to buy it for them. You have to be good at helping them convince the administration of the need of new Yamahas, and the possibilities they offer.”
Another challenge he finds is that many of those who have the authority to press the proverbial button, are naturally inclined to hesitate less he or she makes a “mistake” that will “curse” them for years. He successfully overcomes that by convincing them that it’s the right choice through testimonials and examples of other notable, respected music schools who are happy with the decision they’ve made.
“Administrators may know nothing about music, and have to accept input from teachers and professors.”
For Gigax, the biggest challenge to being successful in the personality of the sales people themselves – “thinking outside the store is something that is very foreign to a traditional retail sales person. It takes that person to knock on the door, cold call, and say ‘I’d love to see your facility.’” Another challenge is that it can be a moving target, as one can be working with a particularly person within an institutional sales, and then that person moves onto another position. “But that can also be a positive, as in if you’re working with a general music teacher who may ultimately become the fine arts director. Then that kind of move can work to our advantage.”
It’s been a game changer on many levels for Meridian Music: “I’ve had staff who were not good at working institutional sales, and they are no longer with me as a result. Those people who sit and wait for someone to walk in can no longer make a living at it nor help me pay my bills, so I’ve tailored my sales staff accordingly. I need people who are confident and competent to make those calls.”
One that certainly fits that mold is Cathy Bloemker, who he credits as being especially proactive and comfortable going outside the store for the sale. “She’s successful because she goes out there, and she’s gotten our staff on board, too,” he says. “She knows the importance of networking and the importance of referral sources – the gal has done in excess of a million in a down market.”
Cathy was a single Mom raising three kids and working two jobs, delivering newspapers and selling an off-name yellow pages,” he tells. “She had certainly gotten over her fear of going door to door. She’s great about going on site and talking to administrators and educators about their hopes and dreams … I wish I had three more just like her.”
When It’s Good, It’s Very Good
M. Steinert & Sons has a history that goes back to 1860, and has been a Steinway dealer since 1869. Today the Boston-based retail operation is run by brothers Paul and Jerome Murphy. Brendan Murphy, son of Paul, has worked in the store since college, and has been primarily focused on institutional sales for last two years.
“Things are pretty good,” Brendan Murphy says. “We’re growing this part of the business, and I think it’s due in part because we have a dedicated staff focused on it.” When it’s good, it’s very good: he cites 2006 as a particularly banner year as they completed a single sale to nearby Tufts University of 12 pianos.
Most recently they sold 10 pianos the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and it was largely due to a bit of detective work. Looking through some old paperwork they saw that Paul Murphy had sold them some pianos back in the mid 1970s. “So I could see that they hadn’t gotten any new pianos since then, at least not from us. So I gave them a buzz.” The call lead to the sale, and the “sale involved me taking back in trade the very pianos my father sold them 30 years ago!”
He credits Steinway’s aggressive pursuit of this market as a key component to their success with it.
“Steinway really supports institutional sales and has affective programs,” he explains. “They do an inventory analysis, and put a report together that shows them what kind of shape their pianos are in. That’s how we start a dialog.” The particularly dialog with Dartmouth ended with them taking in one new Steinway and nine Bostons.
Outreach is key, and for M. Steinert that means recently working with Steinway and inviting all the area music school faculty, deans, and instructors to a nice Boston restaurant for a special dinner and presentation. “We get to meet all the people and get to know them, and present the ‘all Steinway school’ concept.” Murphy says at the last one a Dean called to say he couldn’t make it but wanted to know what he’d be missing. This conversation lead to meetings, and those meetings lead to the school getting new pianos. “It took a year, and when the data was compiled, they just couldn’t replace all their pianos; but we figured out which ones needed replacing the most, which pianos would fit in what rooms, and now they are very excited about their new instruments. We just delivered them last month.”
Murphy says is that while there are those institutions that ask about used instruments because they think they will be more affordable, he discourages that. He’ll say instead of a used Steinway, why not a new Boston? Mostly, he points out that for an institution the key issue is longevity. Steinways increase in value, but schools rarely have to be concerned about resale value. They do need to be concerned about how long they will last. While he has seen statistics that show some schools have Steinways that have lasted 100 years, realistically a school’s piano will last 40 years. Of course, no matter how well the instrument is made, if it’s not properly maintained it won’t hold up to the use and abuse an endless procession of piano students can put on it.
“And there is another part of the inventory analysis,” Murphy explains. “We can provide service recommendations they might not realize they need. Steinway breaks it down to general guidelines depending on whether the instrument is in a practice room, a classroom, a teaching studio, or on the concert hall.”
And Murphy says that Steinway takes maintenance very seriously because “if you put a piano in a school, and it doesn’t sound good, it reflects badly on the company who made it.” So it’s especially important that a maintenance program is in place to keep them at their best.
“This is a big push for Steinway, as the majority of schools can weather economic storms.”
Going forward, Gigax sees institutional sales being an important part of the mix for the indefinite future. “While Mr. and Mrs. Jones don’t have the money for the piano because of the housing crisis, schools still need the pianos.”