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A ‘Diverse Type of Operation:’ Roger’s Piano Proves There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Typical Day’ in Piano Sales

by Victoria Wasylak • in
  • Features
  • October 2018
• Created: October 3, 2018

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Much of the Roger’s Piano’s story comes off as unexpected: the fact that the founder, Roger Shaffer, initially started a guitar and accessories company; the fact that co-owner Carol Wu had been a librarian prior to meeting Shaffer or stepping into his piano store; and, perhaps the most kooky of all, that the pair’s sales ability is so impressive that they once sold a piano to a woman who had come in to their store looking to purchase a light bulb.

After coming in seeking a bulb for her piano lamp, the customer asked a few questions about Roger’s services and soon revealed that she had a piano at home with one particular issue that had persisted for many years despite multiple visits by technicians.

Once Wu suggested that she try one of the display pianos, it wasn’t long before the customer consulted with her husband and the couple purchased a new baby grand. Talk about an upsell!

“As long as we have the ability and the inventory, we really try to work with each and every one of our customers to meet their needs.” Wu explains. “We don’t just push products out the door.”

This exemplifies the Roger’s Piano matchmaking philosophy: patience and genuine interest in a customer. The exchange goes on to prove two things: one, that this Natick, Massachusetts piano company really knows their stuff when it comes to setting folks up with their dream pianos, and two, that there’s no such thing as an “ordinary” day at Roger’s Piano. Some days it may be all acoustic piano sales, and other times it may be digital piano sales all weekend long. On top of all of that, Shaffer and his technicians are constantly at work upgrading and adding new technology and improvements to pianos.

“We’re a very diverse type of operation,” Shaffer says. “Normally retail piano dealers get up, open the door, and wait for customers to walk in. We have a much more extensive type of operation: we build and retrofit player pianos; we rebuild pianos in their entirety or partially; we service the instruments that we sell. There is no such thing as a typical piano day.”

As 2018 comes to a close, Roger’s Piano readies for their latest expansion: a second store in Burlington, Massachusetts, with over 80 parking spaces. There is a much larger workshop for Shaffer and his technicians. There is also an expansive showroom, allowing them to further expand on their inventory choices and working with the community.

An Unlikely History

Shaffer didn’t start his business in the piano market. He didn’t go to school for piano playing either – and Wu’s previous line of work wasn’t even close to the musical world (she has a master’s degree in library science, but more on that later).

“I actually come from a guitar background,” Shaffer explains. After attending Berklee College of Music in his late 20s to study guitar playing, he launched into the MI world with his own guitar store in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1980. Back then, owning an independent business was challenging, if not for the economics, then for the sheer amount of shoplifting that took place.

“Frankly, we were not doing well,” he explains of what was then called Roger’s Music. “There was a lot of thievery.” His luck turned around when a piano technician/dealer came into the store one day and asked to have a handful of his pianos sold there on commission. The exchange marked a key turning point for his business.

“The gentleman who was in the piano industry said, ‘Here are three pianos. Put them in your guitar store. When you sell them you can pay me back.’ The sale of the first piano was like selling 37 guitars to one person. Everything just grew from there.” Shaffer says he, “still hung onto guitars for a while,” but eventually switched over to pianos, an especially smart move given the difficultly of pocketing a piano. After several years, he set up shop in a 4,000 sq. ft. shop in Hanover, Massachusetts. Then things got cutthroat. Come 2003, a major competitor stormed in with a proposition: Sell him Roger’s Piano or get put out of business.

“First he offered to buy my business, which I had no interest in, and then he said, ‘The reason I’m really here is that I’m going to put you out of business,’” he recalls.

Needless to say, that bold individual didn’t make good on that promise, and actually ultimately went out of business, himself.

Wu entered the picture a few years later. She had learned to read music at the age of four in Taiwan but did not pursue music as a career. Instead, she had a career as a librarian, and later changed fields to manage technology data centers for the City of Boston. She even won special citations from both the Boston Police Department and the Boston Emergency Medical Services for her work with 911 services. As a pianist herself, she stopped in at Roger’s Piano to browse in 2007.

She later became part of the crew after being surprised by the variety of pianos Shaffer offered. “I essentially only knew one brand of piano growing up,” she says. “Who knew there are so many different pianos in the world!”

When Roger’s Piano moved to the Natick location, a larger store front located on Route 9 at 12 Worcester Street, Shaffer officially partnered with Wu, making her co-owner of the operation.

The larger facility would give them more room to display fine pianos. Today, they have roughly 250 pianos at two locations. Their new location, Burlington, roughly a 25-minute drive away, has a soft opening with the official grand opening celebration later on.

The Art of Curating a Collection

When you walk into Roger’s Piano, here’s one thing you won’t see: a showroom awash in black pianos. The company prides itself in not only the variety of brands that they carry, but the stock of rare and unique models. As an example, front and center right now is a burled walnut 1920 German Steinway piano that’s fully restored to museum quality.

“It doesn’t exist anywhere in the world but here,” Shaffer says. The variety of both unique models and pianos from lesser-known brands stems from attending trade shows around the world and testing out the models in person. He mentions Winter NAMM in Anaheim, California and Frankfurt Musikmesse in Germany as places where he gets acquainted with piano brands.

“Virtually every manufacturer of new or restored pianos displays their wares at either one or both of those locations,” he adds. “We’ll spend as many as four or five days on the floor trying out pianos. We become familiar with small, obscure makers, and eventually we develop relationships with manufacturers that not only make good pianos, but offer incredible value, which we can then bring into our showroom and offer to our customers.”

How he acquires many of the unique models comes from a similar process, having seen spectacularly restored European pianos.

“About 25 years ago, when I was already involved in piano restoration, I went to my first music convention in Frankfurt, and met a group of European craftsmen that do amazing work I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world. I began to slowly but surely import their instruments,”

Shaffer says. “There are outfits in Europe that specialize only in restoration, and they do incredible high levels of quality. I brought in pianos in pyramid mahogany, African Yew, flamed mahogany and many other rare finishes. Right now, I have a restored Steinway piano built in 1904 in the Louis the XV style in the most beautiful mahogany I have ever seen.”

Checking the different brands and models out in person, Shaffer says, is especially important. Well-known brand names or more expensive pricing doesn’t always mean better. Unlike other goods – namely cars – where the price suggests exactly what you’re getting, piano prices are not consistent with the actual value of the piano.

“Often in the piano industry, price is not an indicator of quality,” he explains. “The average person that walks in the store has never heard of many of the brands we carry. Fazioli, Schimmel, Shigeru Kawai, Pearl River, Fridolin, and Perzina are just a few of the many brands.”

“It is our choice to offer a very diverse inventory,” Wu adds. “We offer everything from used starter pianos to concert grand pianos and from digital pianos to acoustic pianos.”

Fazioli pianos, for readers who are unfamiliar, are handcrafted in Italy with very limited quantity produced each year, but of supremely high quality.

“All of the brands we have mentioned have their own personality,” Wu explains. “The last thing we want is for someone to buy something because we were too lazy to show them what is correct or what is appropriate for them. That’s where we’re different from some other dealerships. We don’t just form a relationship with one manufacturer and sell only that brand. We care about diversity in our pianos because every customer is different. There is no one piano fits all. We want our customers to have the most appropriate piano so they will continue to play and help us cultivate future piano players.”

“There’s a saying in the piano industry: every piano finds its eventual home, and it’s true,” Shaffer adds. “We make investments in rare pianos that might take two or three years to realize a sale. Having these one of-a-kind pianos is very enjoyable, especially when people walk in the store and you can see their jaws drop. Most people take great pride in the interior décor of their homes, and frankly, a shiny black mass production piano would be offensive to them.”

Shaffer and Wu even get to see the end results. They visit customers’ homes to see how the piano matches their interior décor (“It just looked right. I don’t think I could picture anything else in that home,” Wu says of one particularly perfect fit).

A New Approach to Value

Unique to Roger’s Piano is the roster of full-time piano technicians, Shaffer included, whose average experience is 35 years. The team takes many of the pianos in the store and essentially upgrades them with additional technology or improvements that make the pianos more valuable and more enjoyable to play.

“We bring real value to the public by taking a well-made piano and bringing it to the next higher level of performance by using our skill sets,” Shaffer says. “I’ve been at this now for almost 40 years in terms of understanding the mechanics of the piano. Some of these are cutting-edge technologies that I have been perfecting. We’ll spend an average of 18 to 22 hours of work, sometimes more, to bring a piano to a whole other level.” That piano will not play the same as those in a competitor’s shop.

“That is really the reason for our success,” he notes. “I’m not simply a piano store hawking pianos. I can’t even count the number of major piano stores that have gone out of business in my 38 years of business. Some of them at some point were huge and massively successful. In the long term, they weren’t bringing the value to the customer that I have always done. We are still here and expanding.”

Wu, on the other hand, hones in on the feel of pianos, taking note if some take excessive effort to push down on the keys, a small detail that can eventually cause players to lose interest in playing, or worse, give them injuries.

“When we talk about pianos, we’re very much talking about the tone and the feel,” she says. “When people put their fingers on a piano, there could be several different reactions. Some people come into our store and they might start to cry because the combination of the tone and the feel of the piano is something they never have experienced before. We like to provide pianos with very responsive touch for customers so they can truly enjoy piano playing.”

After taking time to listen to what clients are looking for, the staff at Roger’s Piano takes as many meetings as needed to set them up with the piano that will work best for them aurally, aesthetically, and financially. Their sales interactions boil down to two things: comfort and compatibility.

“We develop relationships – on occasion we have people who are very hesitant about making a purchase,” Shaffer says. “They’ll stop in here at Roger’s Piano a dozen times before they make a purchase.

Each and every time they come in, we do our absolute best to make them feel comfortable and not put sales pressure on them. Buying a piano for most people is very stressful. Most people have never bought a quality piano before. They most assuredly won’t succumb to sales pressure. For many people, buying a piano is worse than buying the proverbial used car from a used car salesman.”

Eyeing the Trends

Ask most MI businesses what their biggest challenge is in 2018, and many will reply with either the Internet or customers’ lack of disposable income – now try imagining how to combat the latter when you’re selling some of the biggest, most expensive instruments in the music world. To help customers who might not have the cash to pay for a piano in full, Roger’s Piano offers financing for customers who need it.

“Sometimes for certain customers, we’ll even finance in-house,” Shaffer says. “We also offer a trade up-policy where if someone is really in love with one instrument but can’t afford it now, not even with financing, we offer them a generous 100 percent trade up policy where if they buy something from us today, at some point in the future, they can come in and buy the instrument that they really have their heart set on. The original purchase price is applied as credit towards the higher quality piano. In some cases, I’ve even gone as long as 15 years after the original purchase.”

As for trends in the piano sector, Roger says that player pianos are on the rise, especially as the technology gets more advanced. He first got into player pianos around 1984 when they featured tape-cassette driven automation. Today’s player pianos stream music off the Internet.

“As the technology improves, more grand piano sales are player pianos. “I wouldn’t say it’s massive, but it’s a significant portion,” Shaffer says.

Also popular are digital models that sound and feel more like acoustic pianos. This is especially appealing to people who have neighbors close by or wish to play after their children have gone to bed.

“For people who still prefer the acoustic piano, we offer silent systems in their acoustic pianos,” Wu explains. “It’s a very competitive business, and there aren’t many piano stores left. We can very confidently say that there is really no store like ours in New England,”

Wu says. “Getting to where we are today did not happen overnight. We have put in a lot of hard work as well as being dedicated and driven to want to grow this business. We are extremely grateful to have great staff who are willing to put in the effort as well as believing in why we do things the way we do them. We also owe much to our manufacturers and friends in the industry for staying with us through the tough times and cheering us on during the good times. Ultimately, we are in business for our past, present, and future customers.”

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