by John Colasacco
Since I’m a complete beginner when it comes to music, getting into the role of world’s worst music store customer made sense. Before I began, I thought music stores could be tricky places to shop, especially for those not in the know. To investigate whether or not this idea was true, I decided to visit several music stores, make every mistake I could think of, and return with a list of blunders most likely to spoil your shopping experience. That way, you’ll be able to survive your first trip to a music store without making a fool out of yourself.
First and foremost, know where you’re going. Small independent stores tend to give the most personal attention, while bigger chains have a wider selection and a large number of employees with specialized knowledge. Whatever your needs might be, get a feel for what stores are in your community before you shop.
Second, know why you’re going. On my first few visits, I wore an empty, meandering look that spoke volumes about my consumer savvy. Go prepared, and do your homework. Talk to friends and bandmates. Use the internet to research the item you’re looking for and what you should expect to spend. Research also can help you develop a list of questions. Are you new to keyboards? You might want to ask about MIDI. Thinking about a saxophone? Have a salesperson talk about reed choices.
The Right Direction
On later visits, I masked my naiveté with a thoughtful beard stroke and a slow, squinting nod. I figured since most sales reps are serious musicians, I’d be more credible if I pretended to understand their jargon. But for some reason, my misuse of terms like “action,” “dynamics,” and “register” just made the staff more helpful.
At first I thought they smelled a mark. But by the end of the day, more than one rep suggested that I heed my own advice and do more research. Most seemed genuinely pleased to point me in the right direction. So the moral is, if you’re a beginner, say so.
Listening is Crucial
I imagined surly, tattooed-and-pierced salespeople would have little patience for my bungling antics, but after doing my best to say and touch the wrong things, I realized there was little the salespeople hadn’t seen before. Along the way, I was allowed to play chopsticks on a $1,000 keyboard, drummed so badly I was offered a deal on practice pads, and asked more questions about maracas than I thought possible. I even traumatized a student model violin.
If you see something you like, ask to try it out. If you’re not comfortable playing in the store, ask someone to give you a demonstration. Most stores will let you play pretty much any instrument except the brass and the woodwinds. (Bring your own mouthpiece if you want to blow a horn.) Listening is crucial before you buy, so be sure you like what you hear. Also, don’t be too shy to ask about rentals, instrument maintenance, accessories, and lessons. Ultimately, don’t worry about being a nuisance.
For this part of my research I called music stores all over the country and asked some uncensored questions about the pet peeves of music store sales staff and about problems a customer might encounter with less-than-excellent staffers.
First, voicing doubts about the knowledge and integrity of store employees and merchandise is always a bad idea. Surprisingly, I learned this happens often. Although I deliberately misbehaved on my visits, it never occurred to me to insult the staff. Another pet peeve is the customer who demands to play a full orchestra of instruments before crying off after a solid hour of service. Apparently, this is more of a problem with professional musicians. In other words, if you’re smart enough to understand the nuances of 10 different kinds of ride cymbal, salespeople said, you should understand that this behavior is rude.
So much for difficult customers. As for difficult sales reps, as in any store, stay calm if you feel pressured. If they’re pushy, stand your ground and apply the phrase “I’m just looking” two or three times and they should go away. If your rep seems disinterested, smile, ask questions, and do what you can to make the best of it. Like any good musician, you should have faith in your ability to improvise. Besides, you can always return later or visit another store.