Piano Finders

Piano Finders

A "No Worries" Purchase by Bonnie Linden

A true story written by a first time piano buyer

Piano shopping is challenging. Choosing an instrument with which to be acoustically intimate can be a daunting experience as well as a significant expense.

I confess that I can't be called a savvy shopper. I don't mind overspending a little if I can cut the shopping experience short and still end up with a satisfactory product. For piano-buying, this strategy failed me magnificently.

I wanted a dark-sounding vertical piano. The European instruments were lovely but too pricey. I thought I could be happy with an Asian piano. When I played a mid-range model of a major brand in a dealer's showroom, it sounded dark enough, stable and uniform. The price was decent for the quality.

I thought it would be like buying a new Honda or Toyota. It would be a no-worries purchase& solid and reliable. I'm an amateur musician, I don't need the world's best piano. This was a new instrument from a highly-regarded manufacturer. How could I lose?

The salesman didn't tell me that I would be getting an unprepped, out-of-the-crate instrument. The delivery guys left and I was shocked as I first played my new piano. I tried to like it, but, truthfully, it sounded horrible. I felt like a fool.

A good two octaves of the bass bobbled. The tone was beyond bright, harsh and irritating. Several notes would twang like a banjo or oomph like an accordion. There was a squeak in the fifth octave and the upper register was dead, unresponsive. Of course, it was also gloriously out-of-tune.

When I complained, the dealer sent his technician out right away. The tech gave it a cursory tuning and said, "It's a new piano. It's going to sound bad for the first year. Just don't listen to it." The tech left and I was very unhappy. The piano sounded nightmarish.

So I asked an independent technician to work for me. He retuned it and did a little voicing. For the first time, the instrument had a pretty sound, but it was still intolerably bright and the bobbles, squeaks, buzzes, roars and twangs had not gone away. I couldn't use the pedal because it magnified the myriad defects unbearably.

The dealer rather quickly became exasperated with my unhappiness. He said he'd replace the piano with one he'd prep for me or refund the purchase price. He said the problems I was hearing were really figments of my imagination, that the bass octaves bobbled because I was not a proficient musician, that new pianos should never be voiced, and that the time he'd spent with me hadn't been worth the money he'd earned on the sale.

For my part, I began to regret having done business with this particular dealer. When I went to check out the newly-prepped piano, I took both a friend who is an accomplished pianist and a third technician who is esteemed for his skill.

My pianist friend was unimpressed with the model; the tech suggested I look elsewhere. We found a used piano of the same brand at another shop. It was a different model, vastly superior and significantly less expensive.

So I asked the first dealer to make good on his promise of a refund. At first he was resigned to losing the sale and said he'd have his delivery people hand me a check when they picked up the piano. "Soon," he promised.

When I didn't hear from him for a few days, I called and his tone had changed. The owner wouldn't let him do the refund, he said. His manner became, once again, unpleasant and belligerent. He refused to give me the owner's name and phone number.

I decided to file some complaints. The local Better Business Bureau, the Consumer Protection Unit of the District Attorney's Office, the Department of Consumer Affairs in Sacramento.

Six weeks previous I'd written to the manufacturer's corporation headquarters detailing the piano's issues and asking a customer service rep to contact me. There'd been no response.

After I filed the complaints (two online, one by mail after a phone call), I let the dealer know what I'd done. He quickly offered the owner's name and number. The next day, I got a call from the head technician at the corporation headquarters.

At this point, I was disillusioned with the whole process and admittedly a bit crabby. Still, it surprised me that the head technician's voice was shaking. His tone was ameliorative, but he said the corporation had no control over individual dealers' business policies. He said he'd call the dealer on my behalf but could promise no resolution.

I told him I thought the resolution would come from the DA's Office. The DA had told me California law requires businesses to post a sign stating their refund policy. The shop had no such sign.

Within an hour, the dealer called me, arranged to pick up the piano and give me a full refund.

One of the many technicians I spoke with during the two months of this ordeal told me piano sales these days is a cut-throat business, that salesmen are like sharks. So don't go alone. Use the services of a technician consultant. Take musician friends along and trust your collective ears.

I realize now that my ears are pretty sensitive, that I'm demanding when it comes to tone and touch. My new piano is lovely.

Bonnie Linden

A comment by Karen Lile of Piano Finders

Having been in the piano business for 23 years, I can say that there are all types of salespeople. There are those who treat the buyer with respect and consideration, keep their word and never send a piano out of the store that hasn't been "prepped" comprehensively so that it will play well when it arrives. The manufacturer expects the dealer to do voicing, tuning, regulation and other things as necessary to the piano before it goes to the customer. Dealers who do this often times have happy customers and get referrals for many years because of the time they took to make things right.

But, there are many salespeople and dealers who do not treat their customers with respect and try to get by with the least amount of work. I have heard plenty of stories like Bonnie's. I decided to publish Bonnie's because it is representative of many others. My advice to buyers is to look carefully at the sales practices of the dealer you do business with. Sometimes the lowest price also means the lowest service and the most frustration. Also, if you buy a piano at a discount price at one of the many large business supply warehouses around the country, you will usually be receiving an out of the crate piano from a local dealer who expects to give you little service.