I recently learned that Steinway of Chicago is closing. Is this just another in a long list of prominent piano dealerships to lose their footing in this long recession or is it a reflection on the viability of iconic brands? Or is it something deeper? Quite a few established Steinway and Yamaha piano dealers around the country have closed, and I think it is worth evaluating. In an online forum, someone's reaction to the Chicago new was to complain that Steinway's high prices were to blame, but I don't see it that way.
The industry evolves with the economy. When stores open and close frequently, part of the support structure for local piano culture is lost. The full factors at play in Chicago are unknown, but there is the symbolic effect of an iconic brand in flux...others look to them to see what they are doing. I don't see price as the big issue. The best information available to me indicates that Steinway's recent sales numbers are reflected in the piano market as a whole. If they wish to beat the market, they have to focus on value. Most reports indicate the factory is working to improve execution which I believe is the best way to raise value. The Essex line offers good value (though best value is hotly debated) and I anticipate even more changes to the Boston line. When the economy finds new footing (at whatever level that is) Steinway should be better positioned than before this recession. A lot can go right or wrong, but I haven't seen a challenger for top dog emerge. Some other great makers captured significant market share before the global recession, but that's as far as it went. It's within Steinway's ability to stay on top if they do the right things.
As it relates to pricing and demand, if Steinway grands were suddenly $10k less, the effect would be shortsighted. Of course, Steinway now has other lines to consider....
For now, supply and demand need to find some predictable relationship. This would be good for everyone, not just Steinway dealers, but let us work on growing real demand. We dealers need to plant more seeds and nurture the seedlings so there will be something to harvest year in, year out. I've watched many dealers spend all there efforts harvesting, not planting, and guess what?
25 years ago, few people could afford Steinways but nearly everyone aspired to have one. 10 years ago, few people could afford Steinways but among those who could, some discovered Schimmel or Estonia or Mason & Hamlin. Steinway will never be affordable for everyone, but as another 10 years goes by, a generation could grow up dreaming of something other than Steinway. This is the challenge Steinway faces beyond the immediate downturn.
As I write this, Atlanta is without a Yamaha piano dealer. Neighboring Birmingham lost their Steinway dealer of over 100 years. Phoenix Steinway has closed. The Denver Steinway dealer is closing. Even the piano store in Beverly Hills is closing. The economy will turn, and new businesses will take their place, but what lessons will be learned in the changeover. Will it be a Steinway dealer? Will it be another brand? Or will some other pasttime further displace the piano in our culture? For my part, I will run my business by continuing to plant seeds and nurture the next generation of pianists.