Written by Eric L. Carlson, RPT
I’m sure to make a few enemies over this, or at least offend a few of my friends who are closely associated with a local college, currently promoting such a sale. However, having once been a dealer who did a couple of these college sales, I’ve been wanting to write about this for some time, and expose the dirty truths about university piano sales. There is one positive about these sales, and I’ll spell that out very clearly below.
What exactly is a college piano sale? Typically, a local piano retailer will align themselves with a college or university, and in cooperation with a manufacturer such as Kawai, Yamaha, Steinway, etc., new pianos will be placed in the music department of the college. These pianos are used (and sometimes abused) in practice rooms, teaching studios, and on stage for performances. Even in the best environment, they will end up with scratches, dents, and sometimes excessive wear to the action (keys, action parts, hammers, etc.).
After a semester or two of use, the piano store (or marketing company hired by the piano store) will provide a pre-written letter, to be printed on University letterhead, and signed by the music department chair. This letter will be copied and mailed to all alumni and other local residents, and since it appears to be from the university, the recipients are fooled into believing the sale is a worthy event. There are also print ads and social media advertising, as well as TV ads.
The ads and letters create quite a bit of hype and urgency, and instruct the consumer to call a phone number, or in the case of social media ads, to enter their information for someone to get back to them. At the other end of the phone is a sales person who has a script, and with the same urgency as the advertising, attempts to schedule an appointment to see and try out the pianos before the general public sale.
Once at the sale, there will typically be at least 3 or 4 sales people, all showing pianos to potential customers at the same time. Though some sales people will assert pressure to purchase, they really don’t need to, as there is already perceived urgency because of the other clients looking at pianos. I’ve even heard stories of customers standing by a particular piano, literally guarding it, so another customer or sales person can’t “steal” it from under them!
Once agreed upon, the sale is written up on the store’s invoice, and payment/delivery arrangements are made. Oh, I almost forgot - besides the pianos that were already at the university, the manufacturer will typically send a semi full (about 36 pianos) of new or B-stock pianos, AND, the retailer will also bring new and used stock from their store. The more, the merrier!
After the sale is over and all sold pianos have been delivered, the dealer will typically be obligated to purchase the remaining pianos from the semi-load, unless other arrangements were made. Some of those new pianos may stay at the college, to be used until the next sale. If some of the pianos previously at the college did not sell, they may also remain at the college for another semester or two, until the next sale. All other pianos go back to the retail store, and life goes back to normal. Or does it?
Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly...
There is actually one positive point to make regarding college piano sales. In exchange for allowing the retailer to conduct a piano sale on the college campus, the college gets to use these pianos free of charge. This saves money for the college, because they don’t have to purchase as many pianos for use in the department. However, throughout the first year, new pianos need many more tunings than older, more seasoned pianos, because the new strings are constantly stretching out of tune, so there is more expense there. Or, if they don’t tune them often enough, the students’ ears will be subjected to very out-of-tune pianos (this is usually the case).
Now the negatives...
- The consumer typically ends up paying 10%-20% MORE for these pianos than they would if they just went to the piano dealer directly. Why? Expenses to run the sale are extremely high. The advertising alone is between $10,000-$20,000. That semi with 36 pianos - freight costs on that are around $10,000. How about the expense of moving all the pianos from the store to the college campus? That’s around $100-$200 PER PIANO, depending upon distance from the store, and grand pianos are even more. AND, if the piano doesn’t sell, the store has to pay another fee to move the piano back to the store! Every piano needs to be tuned prior to the sale. That’s another $100-$150 per piano. If a marketing company was hired to conduct the sale, they will usually take a 4% override on the retail amount of each piano.
- High Pressure means the consumer has a more difficult time making an informed decision. The urgency created by these university sales puts the consumer at a huge disadvantage. They become worried they may “miss out on the deal of a lifetime” because they have been misinformed by the advertising and sales person that, not only is this the best possible price for this piano, but the piano will appreciate in value over time. In addition to higher quality models, many reputable manufacturers produce lower quality models in China and Indonesia. Most consumers don’t know the difference, because it still has the same name or decal on the front. But given time, they can do research and gain more knowledge about the different models. Many of these inferior pianos will seem okay for the first year, but then develop significant problems.
- The Piano Dealer (Retail Store) suffers quite a loss. Urgency strikes again! Many potential piano buyers have it in their minds that they’d like to purchase a piano in the next 12 months or so. They may be waiting for their children to grow a bit older, they may be saving money toward the purchase, or perhaps trying to pay off something else first. When the urgent message reaches them about this “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” they often fall for it and make a hasty purchase. What does this have to do with the dealer? The urgency causes pianos to actually be sold “from the future,” which seriously and detrimentally affects store sales for at least the next 6 months. Consumers who would have gone shopping for a piano in the next 12 months have now made the purchase ahead of their original plans. You might be saying, “who cares, the retailer sold the piano anyway!” Remember all those extra expenses for running the college sale? In spite of the higher sale price on the piano, the retailer still made an average of $1000 less profit per piano. Multiply that times 40-50 pianos sold at the college sale. That’s a loss of around $50,000, and the next 6 months become very difficult for the store owner. If it doesn’t eventually put them out of business, it’s at least going to suck for awhile.
- The college eventually loses. Once the dealer realizes that these university sales are not sustainable, he stops doing them. Meanwhile, the college has become accustomed to having these extra pianos, but now faces the reality that they must purchase pianos to replace the ones being taken away by the dealer or manufacturer.
In conclusion, I’d like to say, if you are alumni and you feel a strong desire to support your alma mater, and you don’t mind over-paying for a piano, go for it! It’s America, and we have the free will to do as we please. But at least take the time to make an informed decision about your purchase.
If you’re interested in a quality new or used piano, and not paying an arm or a leg for it, please consider calling us. At Artistic Piano Service, LLC, we sell quality pre-owned pianos manufactured by Kawai, Yamaha, and many others. If you’d prefer a new piano, we are happy to refer you to a dealer you can trust. For piano tuning/repair or quality used pianos, call us at 262-930-8995.
Eric Carlson, RPT is a Registered Piano Craftsman with the PTG (Piano Technicians Guild), and operations manager at Artistic Piano Service, LLC. He is also principal keyboardist for the Racine Symphony Orchestra, and parish musician at St. John’s Lutheran in North Prairie, WI.