What’s Right with Keyboard Sales: A Look at Eight Retailers Who Are Doing Well
It’s not all doom and gloom. (Or in the case of those selling German-made pianos, drang und strum.) Pianos are selling and some salespeople and retailers are doing well. A handful are even expanding and opening new stores.
“Ori Bukai [of Allegro Pianos] is always the expectant salesperson realizing a tremendous percentage of sales and success,” says James Reeder of Blüthner. “Despite the ‘rumor’ of a recession, he has completed a new showroom. Anyone doing what he has done has got to be doing everything right!”
Leslie Buttonow of Korg reported that many of their dealers are managing well, especially Steve Locke of Evans Music City, who she says is “on fire.”
“Steve Smith of Triune Music is doing an outstanding job with organs,” says Rodgers’ Jennifer Brandlon, adding that Smith and team’s ability to connect with customers and continue to build their business is an inspiration.
Studying the history and current sales technique of eight of the best yields two immediate observations: one, there are many roads to success; and two, not one dealer said they were just “doing what they always have done.” Here are their stories.
“I do everything different than the rest of the industry,” shrugs Ori Bukai. “That works because we are doing fine.”
Bukai immigrated to this country from Israel in the mid 1990s, and the piano technician soon began to not only repair pianos, but sell them out of his home. He started modestly enough with the common names, but soon saw the potential of the German pianos popular in Europe, but not as well-known here in the states.
Recently he has moved into a beautiful new showroom, and today he is: the largest Blünther dealer in the world; the largest Estonia dealer in the world; the largest Steingraeber in the world; and the largest Bösendorfer in the U.S. “We do good business with the higher end, and not much with the lower end. My heart lies with the quality pianos,” says Bukai.
His approach to selling is based on challenging assumptions. Steinway has long been thought of as the “holy grail” of high-end instruments. “The piano industry’s higher end is dominated by Steinway, partly for historical reasons, and of course they are good pianos backed by good marketing,” he says. “It’s a nice combination.” WWII helped Steinway’s dominance, and Bukai offers a quick history lesson: The war decimated european piano makers. After the war, while those companies were beginning to put their factories back together, Steinway wisely came in and donated hundreds of pianos to concert halls all over Europe.
“In the 1920′s the biggest piano makers were Bechstein and Bluthner, Steinway was maybe fourth and it took 20 years to rebuild the German factories.”
Bukai’s success is partly based on a simple principle which is giving the customer a lot of choices. “I review all the options and take the time to explain the difference among the our selection of products.”
This is where being a technician comes into play. “Unfortunately, people are either musicians who don’t understand the technical aspects, or technicians who don’t understand the musical aspects. I happen to understand both. And I am able to explain the differences.”
An accomplished pianist, he is sure to perform for his prospective customer, too, which allows him to show the differences between pianos. Also, “people stay longer.” Also he’s quick to debunk that it’s “just” rich people who buy high-end pianos. Perhaps blaming the “victim,” he maintains that if you show someone an $8,000 black piano and an $80,000 black piano, they will buy the $8,000 one every time.
In May 2009 Bukai opened a new showroom with a music school. He did it by paying upfront for the building, so it’s his, cutting leasing costs. He is still “the technician” and works on all his pianos, himself. The building houses 60 high-end grand pianos. Here’s a kicker: to tickle any of these ivories you have to make an appointment. That’s right, you just can’t walk into his showroom.
“It’s a crazy setup. It’s different. Can everybody do this? I don’t think so. But this is the way it works for me.”
Evans Music City
Steve Locke is GM of an MI operation that isn’t afraid to sell a wide variety of keyboards including Korg, Kurzweil, Yamaha, and Roland. The operation was founded in 1947, and specializes in electronic and live recording, keyboards, guitars, and drums.
Locke started working at Evans Music City in 1977 and was named by Korg as being someone on top of his game. Locke is modest about his success: “We’ve been around such a long, long time, and have such a large footprint, that if anyone in the music making or ministry music segment needs anything, they come to us.” “There’s not too many people who do what we do out here.”
And obviously not as well – at least as far as serving such a diverse population, something Locke understands. He says that the diversity of music, from music for worship to music for dance, from formal to jazz, all needs to be served. There’s a keyboard for each. “A keyboard does whatever the artist wants it to do. You just have to listen [to the customer] and provide the right [tool].” The Korg M1 is one model that is doing particularly well for him.
He sites being “blunt” as an attribute, particularly when dealing with houses of worship. “There’s only one way to do something, and that’s the right way,” Locke says. “I’ll tell a church that something will last them 10 or 15 years when something else won’t. You encourage them, make them understand why A is better than B in the long term.”
Locke says he trains his sales staff on one word: Listen. “When you go out to buy anything, when you have a particular need but you’re not sure what to get, hopefully you’re standing in front of someone who knows.”
Appleton, Green Bay, and Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.
Peter Heid founded Heid Music in 1948 and, when son Paul took over, he expanded the operation greatly over the decades. Just recently, grandson Todd became president. It’s a true “full line” store in that it carries acoustic pianos. It’s also unique in that it’s a Yamaha and a Steinway dealer. They also carry Kohler & Campbell pianos.
Todd has been working for the operation since he was old enough to wash the windows. When he was big enough he helped move pianos and after college he sold pianos and then managed that department. Generally, piano sales account for 30 percent of their business.
“We’re also full line in the sense that we do education,” he says, and maintains that education is key in this economic climate. “One thing that we’ve realized lately is just how important education is – it drives traffic. We’ve been getting back to basics in promoting both our Yamaha Music School and the private lessons we provide. Our promotions have focused on our education system. We do really well with people taking lessons here. About 80 percent of the people who enroll in our Yamaha Music School end up buying a piano or keyboard from us.” To emphasize this further, they have created a new recital space in their Green Bay store.
Heid also says they’ve long sold lesser-priced keyboards under the same roof as their acoustic pianos with success. “Eventually customers are going to upgrade. That’s a big part of my business.
“You have to have something at every price point. You can’t turn people away. And once they buy that $199 keyboard, you have them in your database. A lot of people don’t look at the value of carrying [those keyboard products].” As far as the lower margins on them… “we’re used to smaller margins because we’re an MI dealer!”
Fresh back from the Summer NAMM show, Heid was reminded how important keeping up with the basics is. There’s a renewed effort in keeping up with thank you notes, for example. Fresh paint, new displays, and extra attention to keeping the store looking sharp are also paying off. “People recognize when you’re putting money back into your store. Too often you walk into a [neglected] music store and it feels like a funeral parlor.”
Finally, they have renewed their efforts on institutional sales and aggressively gone after church business.
Apparently Maurice Unis didn’t get the memo about the “great recession.” Not only is his Portland, Ore. operation humming, but he’s opening new stores in Bellevue, Wash. and Albuquerque, N.M.
“We are taking advantage of a down market, so when the market comes back, we’ll be in a good position,” Unis says. Unis says his grandfather was a piano technician and as a young boy he worked along-side him in his shop. His father would end up on the Washington State Supreme Court and, while he hoped his son’s future would involve the law, Unis followed his passion for pianos. He would work for Sherman-Clay and in 2000, he opened up Classic Pianos with his three sons.
“Our company used to make business plans out 12 to 18 months, and now we plan monthly to make sure the message were sending out parallels the current economic conditions,” says Unis, who is also a retail consultant. That plan always includes an emphasis on being straightforward with the customer and offering even better service then they previously thought was possible. They are promoting value, building a rapport, and maximizing the amount of customers they can get.
“As a salesperson, I position myself as a higher authority on the instrument, and the entire team has to be in sync. The other thing I’ve learned is that a good product mix attracts great people.”
Classic Pianos only sells Yamaha keyboards and Clavinovas, and is planning on adding slat keyboards soon. The rest of the products are strictly acoustic and include Yamaha, Mason & Hamlin, Schimmel, and Charles Walter. They also carry a large collection of vintage pianos including Steinways.
He’s purposely made his store’s operation unique. When you enter, a receptionist greets you. Nearby is an accessory department. There’s a Yamaha Room, and an American/European room. Downstairs there is quite literally a “bargain basement.”
While his business is doing well – it’s their best year so far – Unis felt they needed to expand. “When the opportunity became available to go into these other markets, we jumped at it. We will still receive all the pianos here, and keep our current crew busy.
“The main thing is our sales team has embraced the economic situation. Recognized it, and used it to form a better, more direct relationship with the client. Understand what it takes to move forward and get him or her the piano of their dreams. We’re more attentive to the customers and know that it’s not always about price.”
Steve Smith says Triune has actually added staff and expanded business. They are on track to have there best year in history.
Out of college, Smith taught choral music at a local high school. Only four years older then some of the kids, the challenges of dealing with groups as large as 60 was daunting. Having one steal his car also contributed to Smith considering a career change into his family’s construction business. Many were disappointed about his decision to leave teaching, perhaps most of all the local keyboard dealer who was negotiating with him to get the school a new organ and piano.
“They asked me to come in and we talked for two hours,” Smith recalls. “Then they hired me on the spot. I wasn’t sure about it because I was an educator, not a salesperson. But actually what I learned is what we do here is education. It’s been a very good fit.” Seven years after joining, the owner retired and Smith bought Triune, taking it over in 1987.
They sell full pipe, digital, and hybrids, working in three states. While Rodgers is their most prominent line, they also represent Walker Technical and Marshall & Olgletree, plus pipe maker Fratelli Ruffatti.
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Smith says that while “there is no single reason for this upsurge in our 22-year old business, however there are many contributing factors.” He recently made the decision to invest heavily in a new Web site. “When I looked at competitors in the area, the Web sites were sorely lacking. One didn’t even have pictures.” Max Longin, who previously worked for Yamaha, designed their site, and the results allow them to tell many stories. It’s sophisticated, yet flexible enough that they can upload updates and new photos. “We started as an electronic organ company, but we’ve done over 70 pipe installations. We’ve become one of the largest organ dealers in the Midwest. There’s no better way to communicate that than through the Web site.”
And it’s not just one-way communications: “We find that clients love staying in touch with us, and love talking to others about the superb way they’ve been treated by us.”
They’ve launched a telemarketing program that is providing positive results, and they’ve lowered margins to be more competitive. Even making their office more energy-efficient has added to their bottom line. They also renegotiated their lease.
“For over ten years we have provided reasonably-priced rental instruments for the finest musical ensembles performing concerts, church conventions, and other special events,” Smith says. This has given them priceless exposure, and The Chicago Tribune music critic noted in one of the reviews of such an event how “splendid” the pipe organ sounded. “You couldn’t afford to pay for such an endorsement from such an expert.”
Willem Van Suijdam
Toronto, Ontario, CANADA
Willem van Suijdan is filled with aphorisms: “Salespeople don’t sell pianos; pianos sell pianos” and “It’s easy to sell a piano, but hard to sell the right piano.” But he can back his verbal cleverness with proof of success.
His Pianohouse Burlington has built itself into Canada’s grand piano superstore, with a large inventory and an aggressive business plan that includes many outside events stretching across the country. Suijdam is a concert pianist and organist as well as a conductor of choirs and orchestras. He immigrated to Canada from Holland in 1986 and founded the operation shortly thereafter.
“If you want to know why I’m doing so well, it’s because I never borrowed a penny,” van Suijdam tells. “I came here with $50 and I still have it.” And then some. Starting out with three pianos, he sold those and bought four; then sold four and bought five. But these were all used and reconditioned. “The biggest problem was that no one wanted to give me a line because all the lines were already represented in the Toronto area.” His answer was to start importing hundreds of used Yamaha and Kawai instruments and selling them at outside sales. (Which did not endear him to the local piano retailing community.)
He’s aggressive, and doesn’t sit and wait, to say the least.
“I pick up my showroom, put it in a big truck, go to a city, and rent a spot by a local landmark.” At these events he “works like a dog,” but his philosophy is people won’t come to him so he has to go to them. “If you don’t, you have no hope in heaven to survive.” In addition to quality pianos, he also has imported some Chinese instruments that he’s not as fond of selling, but does so because some are driven to buy by price only. “People buy what they deserve, and most people don’t deserve a piano,” he quips.
Eventually he was awarded a line: Mason & Hamlin. “They are the pianos of pianos,” he declares. “I’ve never met a piano that is as good as a Mason & Hamlin.” He is quick to tell customers that in addition to their many other attributes, Mason &Hamlins seem especially suited for Canada’s harsh winters because, while other pianos need to be rebuilt after 10 years, the Mason & Hamlin is still solid.
“People come in and play a Steinway side-by-side a Mason & Hamlin and, guess what? They choose the Mason & Hamlin.”
He takes the “soft sell” approach to an unlikely extreme: When a customer walks in, he stays seated and let’s them walk around for a while. “Too many salespeople get too aggressive too quickly.” He does eventually approach them, and then etablishes himself in a position of great authority – by sitting down and playing.
Van Suijdam isn’t afraid to show his sense of humor, either. Typically when asked what they are looking for, the customer response with a meek “I don’t know.” “Oh, so you’re going to buy a $100,000 piano today?” he asks. When they smile and decline he says, “So you do know what you want.” He qualifies first the budget. “I tell them they will make everyone’s life easier if they tell me what they want to spend. I have 150 pianos here – once I have a budget I can eliminate 140 of them.”
Having such a huge selection (and personal appreciation) of so many different brands is a major factor to his success. “The first mistake that most dealers make is they speak badly of the brands they don’t carry. Whatever they represent is the best! Well, that’s why I have everything.”
Straight Music was founded in 1963 when Dan Straight moved his family to Austin to open a Baldwin piano dealership. Over the years, he expanded beyond keyboards and today they are a full-line operation. The Memorial Day flood of 1981 nearly did the operation in, as much of its inventory was damaged. The father then decided to turn the store over to his children. Eldest son Robert manages the store. The other children have all been active in the business, particularly David, who manages the piano department.
David began in the business by cleaning pianos, then moving them, and since 1982 he has worked in the keyboard department.
“We’ve been a Yamaha dealer for 30 years and have had Wyman pianos since they began five years ago,” Straight says. “Right now we’re looking at the new [Osla] digital pianos Wyman is offering, and we also have some portable keyboards in addition to Clavinovas.” Straight says they have keyboards and digital pianos mixed in with their acoustics because “not everybody can afford a $2,000 piano, and a keyboard will get them going. After six months or so they usually trade it in and get a piano.”
His credits his sales skills not only to growing up in the business, but also having the opportunity to watch how others did the work. “Two great salespeople that worked for my dad, Katherine Cole and Dal Farris, were terrific. They’ve retired and passed on, but I was watching how they sold pianos since I was eight.”
Straight’s approach is “friendly, persistent without being pushing.” They have been consistent with following up, and have found their clients appreciate a call back as long as it’s not high-pressure. “We concern ourselves about what they are looking for and their budget. That’s the basics that I’ve learned.” Personal charisma helps, too.
“Looking back, the business has grown an average of 10 percent of a year,” he says. Their history of service and product knowledge brings customers from other parts of the state. Today, he returns to the basics more than ever before: “Father always taught me that if you make 10 to 20 phone calls a day, the law of averages say you will happen onto one or two who are still thinking about a piano. When times are tough, you have to get back on the phone.”
They are also getting out of the store. They did a couple of Costco events, which did okay; other promotions include setting up one of their pianos in model homes. “Even at some of the banks, we have our pianos in the lobby. And we donate pianos for special non-profit events. A piano at a good cause, like fighting cancer, is a good thing to do and let’s people in the community know we care.”
They’re even using the Texas heat as a marketing opportunity. They’ve decorated their pianos with signs that say: “Stay cool! Stay inside and play piano!”
The J-B Piano Company
San Rafael, Calif.
Tried everything else? How about faith?
Glenn Woodruff tells a story that goes something like this: He came in one day, and the bookkeeper pounced on him with a discouraging fact: The company needs $30,000 today or it would face dire consequences.
Woodruff took his sons and said a prayer. A few hours later came a phone call. “A man was inquiring about a piano and I encouraged him to come in. He did, and I sold a $30,000 piano.”
Woodruff grew up in the central coast of California, near Hearst Castle, and took it upon himself to tune pianos first, and play jazz on them second. But knowing the instrument inside and out is what Woodruff is about. “I frankly have to say I can’t imagine selling pianos and not being able to work on them. Even during the course of a sale, you’ll hit a key that doesn’t sound perfect, or some customer will ask a specific question … being a technician isn’t mandatory, but it can help.
“Sometimes I know too much! [laughs] As technicians we have to be careful [of information overload].”
J-B does a lot of restoration work, including a recent 1890s Steinway. Another project of note was a 1911 Packard piano. (Using humor as a marketing tool, he noted on it that this company “made automobiles too.”) A woman wanted to rent a piano and, on a hunch, by the sound of her voice, he let her have this Packard for six months. At the end of that time she bought it. “I don’t generally believe in doing something like that, but I have been trying different things.”
They represent Grotrian pianos. “They have always been our top of the line instrument, a magical piano,” he says. “They have all the nuances and smooth action that is the very best. If you’re going to play Debussy, it needs to be on a Grotrian.”
Being excited about what is on his floor is paramount to his success. “I have a contagious love for the piano,” he admits. “That excitement level transfers.”
This includes other pianos, like August Forster (“somewhat a sleeper on the market”) and Blüthner (“dark and beautiful and melodic, like Brahams”).
Like any artist, Woodruff makes it seem simple. First, honesty. “Never misrepresent anything, and do what you say you’re going to. That way you can sleep at night, too.”
The times have not shaken one fundamental principle: Since opening in 1954, J-B Piano has never had a piano sale. They don’t put the word “sale” on their pianos or their signage. “I treat pianos as an instrument of value, a collectable. Sometimes we bargain and make deals, but I personally don’t believe in the “sale [concept].”
Finally, he just has faith. “I’m a Christian, and I remember going to a church as a kid and hearing ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow,’ and I look at things that way,” Woodruff says. Maybe when we’re right with God, things are good.
“Sales are always a miracle.