Pulling Out All the Stops
Sometimes it doesn’t take a crystal ball to be successful. The longstanding crew at Piano and Organ Center, a retail keyboard chain with four locations throughout New York, has just made it to its 30th anniversary thanks to a career’s worth of simple decisions and community-building efforts. They haven’t jumped on every new product and marketing trend to come along, but through solid events and lessons programming with their customers, and a patient presence in malls across the state, the business has thrived.
The keyboard shops, whose locations in Clay (north of Syracuse), Rochester, and Buffalo all specialize in pianos, organs, and sheet music, are just the latest configuration of an ever-evolving business (a fourth store in Watertown is full-line music instrument dealer). Owner David Constantino says he got started in the business long before the Center had ever taken shape.
“I started at Clark Music [in Syracuse] way back when,” he says over the phone one snowy day in upstate New York. Constantino developed his chops among a large staff of organ and piano sales personnel and many of them went on to work at North Syracuse Music. “When that shop finally closed, we all had to fend for ourselves. There were about six or seven us all opening up at the same time. It’s kind of funny – even the competition, at one point, all worked together. Probably through the years we’ve sold every brand there is to sell.” Today, Constantino says he’s the last one left of the bunch.
“The Piano and Organ Center, incidentally, has pretty much had the same personnel for over 30 years. We started out as a partnership between Bob Wolfe and myself. A couple years later, we added Jim Hearne and Bob Carbone. Then we added Wayne Skinner a bit later. My wife, Nancy, has been the bookkeeper since we started.”
Constantino’s business, which currently operates out of mall storefronts, began without an actual showroom, as he and Wolfe would travel across the state to set up kiosks in malls and at home shows over the weekends, selling to a revolving cast of customers. They had a warehouse in Syracuse and would have everything that was ordered that weekend delivered immediately. “We’d take Monday and Tuesday off,” he says. “Then Wednesday we’d load up the truck, and Thursday we’d be out on the road doing it all over again.”
It was a hectic pace, but they quickly grew to be very successful. When they got a chance, though, they finally settled into a storefront. They moved into their current headquarters in Clay’s Great Northern Mall in 1994 and have since focused on the instruments’ primary fans – those players in their golden years. Nowadays, they don’t hit up many fairs and their customer base is aging as always, but they’ve come up with a number of strategies to keep people interested and to maintain music-loving communities. It’s a patient, common- sense setup that’s continued to work for Constantino.
“What I try to look for is a quiet mall where rent’s not going to kill us,” he says. “Then I start advertising in the senior magazines and senior sections of the paper, “penny savers,” and whatnot, for organ lessons. That’s pretty much all my advertising – piano and organ lessons or group lessons.”
The key for the Center is to keep folks engaged with lessons, concerts, class recitals, and chances to upgrade. They hold six-week sessions for new students and always try to make sure people come away with tools that will help them have fun playing their new products.
“Our customers are 60 to 70 years old starting out,” he says. “They’re either living longer or looking for more things to do, who knows.”
All sessions end with a party and recital complete with coffee and snacks, and it’s translated into dedicated community of keyboard players. “We’ve had one lady, for instance, who’s come in from a hundred miles away almost every week. They might have an organ lesson and then maybe a theory lesson – we try to give them two or three lessons while they’re here.”
Constantino says it’s always important to check in with customers about upgrading their instruments to keep product moving and to see them expand their abilities. “The advantage there is that the person who buys that big organ trades in their smaller organ and then we can sell that one. So in other words, if we sell one of the large organs, we usually get four or five back in on that trade. It’s all our own money.”
It ends up maintaining more consistent business than the piano market, which Constantino likens to the stock market: “You never know when someone’s going to come in and buy a grand piano.” Since he has so many regular visitors to the shop, Constantino has enlisted a regular set of different art groups to provide a few different shows of artwork for the store on a revolving basis. He also reserves one wall to hang jigsaw puzzles complete and framed by customers.
But it’s not all old school tactics and products that keep the shop afloat. Constantino notes many new products from trusted companies that have made keyboards easier to grasp than ever. “Lowery has just introduced what’s called ‘Virtual Orchestra,’ which is 88 keys like a digital piano except with all the Lowrie features like ‘Easy Play.’” he says. “It’s ideal for senior citizens. If someone in the family can play the piano, fine. It’s a nice-sounding piano. But if they can’t play, we’re going to put them through the same program as we do the organs. Play with two fingers, go home, and have fun with it.”
David Constantino has also learned to ride the ups and downs of the industry. As business grew through the ‘90s, he was operating as many as eight stores at one time. There were recently as few as three, though he just opened a new branch in Buffalo, and his Watertown location works as a full-line instrument store.
“In Watertown, we’re the only music store,” he says. “It’s the path of least resistance. It’s easier to sell a guitar or a saxophone or that kind of thing than it is a piano.”
Looking to the future, he makes no bold predictions. But if the past 30 years are any indication, Constantino will adapt with the times and be sure to take advantages of a solid product in an evolving marketplace.
“As long as the organ people are making organs, we’ll continue to sell them,” he says.
“The funny thing is that 30 years ago, everyone was saying ‘Organs are dead, organs are dead. Nobody’s buying organs anymore.’ But we’ve been doing it for 30 years and probably will for another 30 years. They keep coming out with new, innovative things that get people excited.”