Published in Music Trades, February 2014
If the superstore was the symbol of retail dominance ten or 15 years ago, today’s ideal looks more like the Apple Store. From sprawling aisles and massive inventories, retailers have taken a sharp turn toward small, purpose-built store formats, high-tech sales tools, and a boutique atmosphere. It’s a natural model for selling smartphones and tablets. A harder question is, can it work for pianos?
The short answer is yes: It all comes down to how you implement it. Steinway & Sons set a blueprint for smaller piano stores with profitable company-owned retail outlets in Hollywood and Pasadena, California, each less than 3,500 square feet. Those stores caught the attention of Danny Saliba, his wife L.B., and Danny's son Casey, the team at the head of The Clavier Group, Inc., which operates top-performing Steinway dealerships in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Plano. As they prepared to add a Houston location last year, Casey made the trip to California to evaluate whether a small-format piano store could work for them. “I wanted to see in person how it worked to run a smaller boutique type store and still sell the same number of units,” says Casey Saliba. “Seeing how Steinway did it made it possible for me to say, ‘Okay, we can do this too.’”
The main Houston showroom that opened in August 2013 occupies just 3,200 square feet. It comfortably houses no more than 35 pianos, says Casey, while a major piano store would traditionally cover more than 5,000 square feet and hold around 75 pianos. The Houston showroom won’t need to accommodate the store’s selection of Steinway concert grand pianos, which are housed in an off-site “selection center” that opened in January. Still, space constraints put a premium on smart inventory selection and clockwork logistics at the new location, known as Steinway Piano Gallery of Houston. “The most challenging part of the strategy in a smaller location is maintaining inventory levels,” says Danny. “When you sell a piano, you’re going to have to bring in a piano at the exact same time as you take one out.”
Besides forcing critical stocking decisions, says Casey, working in small dimensions made the Salibas rethink what they knew about merchandising. Where roomier stores might intersperse display fixtures and salespeople’s workstations among the instruments, the Houston showroom has been stripped down to the stark elegance of two or three dozen Steinway-designed pianos. Salespeople’s offices are concealed behind the main display, but a single “closing desk” on the showroom floor, preloaded with all the necessary software and materials, is available to any member of the staff for closing a sale. “It’s important to be selective about your inventory,” says Casey, “but the other key is to make your product the focus of your store. With a store this size, you can’t clutter the space. It’s very clean. When you walk in, the star of the show is the piano.”
Part of the trend toward smaller stores in every industry comes down to one universal fact: digital infrastructure doesn’t take up space. Long before opening up in Houston, The Clavier Group’s Dallas-area stores were pioneering tools including Google Analytics for reading market trends, along with Steinway & Sons’ online referral system for generating sales leads. Today the five-store retailer employs a full-time “internet concierge,” Melissa Elmore, who is responsible for fielding online inquiries and following up to bring in as many prospects as possible for face-to-face meetings. “Instead of trying to sell a piano over an email exchange, Melissa’s main goal is to get them in the door for an appointment with one of our sales representatives,” says Danny. “And we’ve seen a really good closing ratio using this system.” Each online sales lead is also the start of a detailed log. From the first contact through every subsequent communication, meeting, and sale, a step-by-step record is kept and analyzed for each transaction. “We have the statistics and data to see what’s working and what isn’t,” says Danny. “We can see the process go fullcircle.”
During a 35-year career in the piano business, Danny Saliba once worked directly for Steinway & Sons, where he helped design the marketing program he would later implement as a retailer. At the head of The Clavier Group, he’s earned multiple honors for his proactive sales efforts and overall performance. In 2009, amidst a prolonged slump for the piano market, Danny made the call to jettison several secondary piano brands and become an all-Steinway dealer, carrying only the Steinway, Boston, and Essex lines. In the years that followed, the strategy paid off. While conditions haven’t gotten much easier for the piano business, The Clavier Group has tracked well ahead of the market, recording an 8% sales gain last year.
“If I had to explain it, I’d say it comes down to simplicity,” says Casey. “We carry Steinway, Boston, and Essex. It’s simple for our salespeople to present those brands, and express confidence in those brands, because they don’t also have to talk about 12 other kinds of pianos. One of the comparisons I like to make is that when you walk into an Apple store, they sell Apple products, and that’s it. You walk into Best Buy and there are 17 different mp3 players that all do something different. The message to the consumer is not as clear. I think that simplifying the buying process has helped our company to expand.”
Casey Saliba, now 30, joined his father at Steinway Hall-Texas right out of college and moved up to become The Clavier Group’s director of sales and marketing. “Casey has dramatically updated what we were doing 20 years ago for today’s marketplace,” says Danny. “Now it’s all about identifying the different market segments we serve so we can take an even more focused approach.” To elaborate on that last point, Casey and his marketing team analyzed their customer mix and broke it down into its key slices, assigning a specialized liaison to each. One sales rep covers the interior design market, traveling to home shows and working with clients to develop one-of-a-kind art case pianos. One rep handles institutional sales while another works with piano teachers. Still another works with Steinway’s artist clientele, attending concerts and working with musicians and venues to cater to performance needs. “It’s an individualized and specialized treatment of the client,” says Danny. “So as far as the strategy goes, we have it set. It was just a matter of rolling it into Houston.”
Located about 250 miles from the Salibas’ other three stores, the Houston location opens up a unique new market for The Clavier Group. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Houston ranked among the nation’s fastestgrowing cities over the past year. It’s also the nation’s second-largest center for foreign diplomats, especially from the Middle East. The constant comings and goings of this group, combined with their affluence, lifestyle, and housing needs, can make for a prime piano market.
Maybe even more compelling is Houston’s standing in the arts. Trailing only New York City, its performance venues hold the second-most seats of any city in the United States. “Houston is a tremendous opportunity in that the arts are supported strongly,” says Danny. “We’re looking at a different clientele, much higher on the arts scale than what we have in Dallas.” Tailoring the store to the market, Steinway Piano Gallery of Houston has drawn up its offsite selection center as an environment where clients, whether institutional buyers or professional artists, can play on a variety of instruments to find the sound that suits them. Also based at the selection center will be Steinway Piano Gallery of Houston’s newly hired head technician, Joel Britton, who spent four years in Steinway & Sons’ own Concert & Artist Department and also served as tuner for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The expectation is that under his watch, the Houston inventory will be virtually concert ready all the time.
Since the new store opened this past summer, Danny and L.B. Saliba have spent the majority of their time in Houston to run it, while Casey remains in the Dallas area to head up the other showrooms. “It was the perfect way to do it,” says Casey. “After watching him run the Dallas/Fort Worth/Plano stores these past few years, learning from what he did, I felt comfortable in the move. I didn’t second-guess it at all, and it’s been a really easy transition.”
“Casey has been around this industry his whole life, and he’s made dramatic improvements to the tools we have at our disposal, making them net-friendly and usable for 2013 and beyond,” says Danny. “My confidence level in him up in Dallas has been unquestioned as I concentrate on the Houston side. Besides, Houston is only four hours away. I can go back—but it’s one step closer to the beach.”
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