Piano Buyer Interview:
Joe Ross, Owner of PianoMart.com
Note: Piano Buyer Classifieds is a cooperative venture between PianoBuyer.com and PianoMart.com. PianoMart.com owns and operates the search engine that powers the classified-ad section of PianoBuyer.com. Ads placed through either portal are displayed on both companies’ websites.—Editor
How did you get started in the piano business?
Back in 1977, I was working for a remodeling contractor and looking for a career change. A close friend who was a piano teacher suggested that I explore the idea of tuning and repairing pianos for a living. She put me in touch with her piano tuner, who told me about a well-known local piano technician who taught the art of piano tuning and repair. I had an interview with the gentleman, and two weeks later I was sitting in his workshop attending my first lesson. About a year later, I was laid off from my job and decided that that would be a good time to devote myself full time to servicing pianos. After 40 years in business and approximately 25,000 pianos serviced, I think I can safely say that it was a good decision. I still enjoy the work, especially the interaction with my customers, many of whom have become good friends over the years.
What was the genesis of PianoMart.com?
In the early 1980s I became fascinated with the new technology of personal computers. I purchased my first computer in 1984. Back then, there was no Windows, no mouse, and no Internet. My computer didn’t even have a hard drive! To run a program, I first had to load it into the computer’s Random Access Memory (RAM) from floppy disks. The monitor was a small screen with a black background and small white letters. I used a database program to create a catalog of all of my customers, tracked my income and expenses with the spreadsheet program, and created invoices and business letters using the word-processing program.
In the mid-1990s, the retail world began to change as the Internet was adapted for commercial use. I observed that there were websites for selling houses, cars, and boats, so I decided to create a website exclusively for buying and selling pianos. However, I had no idea how to go about doing this. I learned that the first step was to register a unique domain name to serve as the business’s Internet address. I wanted a domain name that was easy to remember and would accurately describe an online marketplace for the sale of new and used pianos. After a short period of test-marketing different domain names, I decided to call the website PianoMart.com.
It’s difficult for me to believe, but PianoMart.com has just celebrated its 20th anniversary. The first version went online in January 1997. It was created by a friend of mine, a computer programmer, who knew the coding language of the Internet: hypertext mark-up language, or HTML. The site was very simple and was not interactive. To get content on the site quickly, I copied “PIANO FOR SALE” ads from the classified sections of several different newspapers. To get an ad posted on the site, it was necessary for the seller to e-mail me all of the piano’s details and photos. Then I would manually type all of the information into the proper forms and upload them to the website via a file transfer protocol (FTP) program. Needless to say, this method became very time-consuming, especially as the popularity of the site grew and the number of ads increased.
How has the Internet changed the ways people buy and sell pianos?
Before the Internet, one of the few ways to advertise a piano for sale was to place an ad in the classified section of the local newspaper or in other, smaller publications, such as a regional PennySaver or Swap Sheet. It was expensive, and your ad reached only a limited local readership. The larger cities—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston—had very large selections of used pianos in the classified section at any given time, but if you lived in a small town, you might not see any used pianos advertised for several months.
The Internet has changed everything. If you’re selling a piano today, you could place an ad on PianoMart.com or PianoBuyer.com and your ad has the potential of being seen by thousands of piano shoppers from around the world. Obviously, this is a good thing because it exposes your piano to more potential buyers. But there is also a downside. A piano shopper can go online today and find, for example, literally dozens of ads for the very popular Steinway Model M grand piano. Before the Internet, a piano shopper may have known about only a few Model M’s, if any, for sale in his or her area, and those few pianos, if they were in good condition, were selling at premium prices. But now, because of the Internet, shoppers can be aware of nearly all the pianos of the same model available over a wide geographic area, which has the effect of both lowering the prices and making them more uniform, in turn making it harder to find an unusually good deal.
What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome in selling pianos online?
When I started PianoMart.com, only about 25 to 30% of homes had Internet access. Internet connections at that time were typically dial-up over phone lines using a modem, and the connections were painfully slow and unreliable.
In those early days of the Internet, people, with good reason, were reluctant to give out their credit-card information online. Online security and encryption protections were either not yet in place or were not as strong as they are today.
A challenging obstacle to overcome was the question of how to handle the actual transfer of funds from the buyer to the seller once an agreement to purchase had been reached, especially when they lived in different cities or states. The buyer doesn’t want to pay for the piano before receiving delivery, while the seller, on the other hand, doesn’t want to ship the piano to the buyer before it has been paid for. Typically, neither party has any leverage or protection during the transaction. To overcome this problem, we created our own PianoMart.com free escrow service. The buyer wires payment for the piano into our escrow account. The money is held in escrow until the piano is delivered to the buyer. When we have confirmation from the buyer or mover that the piano has been delivered, we wire the funds to the seller. This provides security for both parties. We’ve processed many escrow transactions over the years, and the system has worked very well.
What has been your biggest challenge?
Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge has been trying to stay one step ahead of the scammers who relentlessly assault the site almost daily. Today, most successful websites have been targeted by scammers who attempt to steal money from unsuspecting Internet users. It is a daily task for me to check the site for fraudulent ads, or respond to questions from piano sellers regarding suspicious e-mails that they have received from scammers. Unfortunately, in today’s world, everyone using the Internet must be vigilant.
What are some of the scams that have appeared on your site?
There are two popular scams that we see on the site regularly. The first one works like this: Let’s say that you’re selling a Yamaha grand piano and your asking price is $15,000. You receive an e-mail from someone (the scammer) who expresses interest in your piano. The scammer tells you that he would like to buy your piano and that he will mail a cashier’s check to you in the amount of $17,000. He explains that the extra $2,000 is for the “shipping agent,” to cover the cost of moving the piano. Several days later, you will indeed receive an authentic-looking cashier’s check in the mail for $17,000, and the scammer will ask you to deposit the check and then wire the extra $2,000 to his shipping agent. Many people mistakenly believe that a cashier’s check is guaranteed to be good, so they deposit the check and then wire the funds to the shipping agent, as instructed. Then, several days later, they are notified by the bank that the check they deposited is bogus and worthless. But by this time, it’s too late. The scammer has your $2,000, and there is no way for you to get it back. They were never really interested in buying your piano, and there never was a “shipping agent.”
In a second type of scam, the scammer copies an ad for a very expensive piano, including photos, from another website and then posts it on PianoMart.com, falsely representing himself as the owner of the piano. The fraudulent ad attracts a lot of attention from piano shoppers because the scammer has placed a very low asking price on it, and shoppers are aware that it should be selling for a lot more money. The scammer will tell interested buyers that they can pay for the piano when it’s delivered to their home, but will ask them to pay for the shipping fee upfront. Most people wouldn’t agree to this request, but scammers depend on the small percentage of people who don’t see a problem with this arrangement and are willing to send them the shipping fee. Of course, the scammers were never really selling a piano, and the “shipping fee” is gone.
How can piano sellers on PianoMart.com protect themselves from a fraudulent transaction?
The e-mails that piano sellers receive from scammers are relatively easy to identify. These thieves are usually from outside the U.S., and in most cases their grammar, awkward use of language, bad spelling, and punctuation errors will be a dead giveaway. The scammers will ask very few, if any, questions about the piano’s condition or history. They will want to quickly proceed with the transaction. They will offer to buy your piano sight unseen, or without having it inspected by a local piano technician. Whenever you receive an offer to buy your piano, always ask for the buyer’s phone number and then actually call them. A scammer will avoid making contact on the phone, or will give you a bogus number. A scammer will make excuses as to why they cannot be reached by phone, but a legitimate buyer will be eager to speak with you about the piano. Do not accept more than your asking price, and do not under any circumstances wire money to a “shipping agent.” The safest way to buy or sell a piano on the Internet is to use the PianoMart.com free escrow service.
What would you say to someone who is uncertain about buying used?
I encourage people to explore the idea of buying a used piano instead of a new one. If you definitely want a new piano and can afford it, that’s fine. But there are many exceptional values in the marketplace for used pianos in excellent condition. By buying used, it’s often possible to acquire a better-quality instrument for the same price as a lower-quality brand-new piano. Parents purchase expensive new pianos hoping that their children will take lessons and develop a love for the instrument. But many times, that just doesn’t happen. The kids take a few lessons, then lose interest. The piano sits untouched in the living room and becomes an expensive knickknack holder. It has probably received very little use over the years, and therefore all of the internal components show very low wear. Typically, a used piano in excellent condition may sell for one-third or one-half of the cost of the same model new. There are many, many used pianos for sale, but not enough buyers for all of those pianos, so if you’re looking for a good used piano, this is a good time for you.
What other advice would you give to people who are thinking of buying or selling a used piano?
The best advice that I could give to anyone who is buying a used piano is to have it inspected and evaluated by a qualified piano technician before purchase. This type of service typically costs about $100 and is money well spent, especially if you’re buying an expensive grand piano. This becomes even more important when you’re buying a piano from an out-of-town seller and are not able to inspect or play the piano yourself. I’ve heard of cases where people have purchased a piano from an out-of-state seller, only to be disappointed when the piano was delivered to their home. Sometimes the seller neglects to disclose major issues with the instrument, or misrepresents its condition. An inspection by a piano technician will reveal any of the piano’s deficiencies and will give you the ability to make an informed decision about purchasing the instrument. A list of Registered Piano Technicians, searchable by zip code, is provided at www.ptg.org, the website of the Piano Technicians Guild.
If you’re selling a piano, I would also encourage you to have it inspected and evaluated by a piano technician, to determine a fair market value for the instrument. Most people who are selling a piano have no idea of the current used-piano market or what their piano is really worth. Several years may have passed since they bought their piano. Retail prices change every year, and this affects the value of used pianos as well. If your asking price is too high, you will price yourself out of the market and decrease your chances of selling. I have also seen piano sellers who leave money on the table because they were unaware of the true value of their instrument and their asking price was too low. Because there are over 1,500 piano ads on the site, one of the frequent comments that I hear from people is that they have used PianoMart.com as a price-comparison guide to assist them in pricing their own piano before selling it.
This probably goes without saying, but before you place your piano on the market, your piano technician should make sure that all of the keys and pedals work properly, and that the instrument has been freshly tuned. If the inside of the piano is extremely dusty or dirty, have your technician clean and vacuum it for you. Visual appearance is important to a prospective buyer. When placing an ad, include photos of the piano from several different vantage points. With an upright piano, take a photo of the keys, and remove the front panel and take photos of the action, hammers, and strings. With a grand piano, remove the music desk, raise the lid, and take photos showing the condition of the soundboard, strings, and tuning pins. Ask your piano technician to remove the piano action, and take photos that show the condition of the hammers.
Do you have any closing comments?
Yes, I’d like to make a comment about the importance of music in our lives. One of the most valuable gifts that a parent can give to a child is the gift of music. When a child learns to play the piano, or any instrument for that matter, they are learning valuable long-term skills that will benefit them in other areas of life: discipline, creativity, concentration, manual dexterity, poise, problem solving, timing and rhythm, and a sense of accomplishment. Learning music stimulates the brain and develops spatial reasoning unlike any other activity. In my years in business, my unscientific observation has been that children who excel at playing the piano are also good students academically. I have never seen a good piano student who is failing in school. Plato said, “Education in music is most sovereign because, more than anything else, rhythm and harmony find their way into the secret places of the soul.” I agree!