I’ve often wondered when the business model of piano buying would start to change. It seems like we feel comfortable purchasing everything from toothpaste to tires online and yet pianos are one thing that you still buy in a store. Well some of that is about to change. After speaking with Larry Caruso from Caruso Piano, they’re launching a brand of piano made specifically for online ordering. It’s called Sonnova. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Larry Caruso and Brian Biddle about their new brand but also this new method of piano buying.

Glen Barkman (GB): Larry, how did this whole idea of online piano buying begin?
Larry Caruso (LC): Pre-dating all online selling, my father started this business a very long time ago. Believe it or not, this is our 94th year. This all started in 1929. He was only 17 years old, right in the middle of the depression. He picked up the accordion and one thing that seems to be depression-proof is music. I believe it has to do with the fact that music provides hope. And so parents came to him with requests to teach their kids accordion. Fast forward several years, he was teaching door to door and finally opened an accordion studio. After a few location moves, he ended up in the US Navy town of New London, Connecticut. It was here he started what we used to call a mail-order business. It worked well for the sailors and their families. He sold lots of musical instruments and music instrument related products.

GB: So you’re no stranger to the world of mail-order, having someone buy something remotely?
LC: Not at all. In fact, this is our 62nd year of mail order. But now, we no longer call it mail order. It has morphed into online shopping.

GB: And so when did selling pianos come into the mix for Caruso?
LC: We started retailing grands and uprights in the late 80’s, early 90’s. We’ve been at it about 30+ years.

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GB: How did online sales begin?
LC: Back in the 90’s, Ebay became the largest portal, the gateway to selling online to a larger audience. As times have changed, though, people shop more and more through websites like our own.

GB: What are the advantages for consumers to shop online?
LC: Two things come to mind for me. The first is going direct to smaller markets. We are situated in an area that services 15 million people. But what about the small towns in Wyoming? A piano store might be seven hours away, and even then, they might not have selection. The second, is efficiency. On the Eastern seabed, there might be 6 stores in close proximity but it also might take fighting traffic and 2 hours to each store. Online shopping has served those two needs exceptionally well. In addition, I’ll add that online shopping also comes with the added benefit of direct-to-consumer pricing, which is very good.

GB: How do you convince people to buy something online?
LC: Simply, we don’t. We recognize that there will always be people who want to touch and feel the keys in person. But we also are acutely aware that there’s a whole new generation of people who are completely comfortable buying virtually.

GB: I can hear the readers saying to themselves “I would never buy a piano online”
LC: And I can completely appreciate that. And we gladly welcome them to our warehouse showroom. But I also want to add that virtual piano buying is not ~ click ~, purchase, deliver without having a conversation. These are big ticket items. We still pick up the phone or do video. Providing excellent media is paramount. When we qualify what kind of piano would be best suited to the customer, we ask ourselves, “Can we make this person happy?” Most of the time, the answer to this is a resounding Yes! and we proceed. But there are times when we feel that online buying is not for them and we tell them, to lay their fears aside, that it would be best for them to come in, in-person and try before you buy.

GB: That brings me to my next question: For those who say that piano shopping could never be done online because pianos are so different, so individualistic, how would you respond to them?
LC: Good question. Pianos have changed immeasurably in the last 20 years. With the advent of computerization, with CNC, with quality control, with buying parts from reliable suppliers, pianos have become more and more uniform. You could take one piano out of a box and then another and another and the consistency is outstanding. This is unprecedented. This is, in part what has led us to launch our own brand. We became a product of our own buying model with Sonnova ~ we ‘mail ordered’ an entire container of pianos.

GB: And how was your experience?
LC: It would have been great… except for COVID. That delayed all our pianos by 2 years. For 2 years we waited and waited but then all the manufacturing and shipping delays sorted itself out. And that was a great day to take possession of our first batch of pianos.

GB: Tell us about Sonnova pianos. How did this come about?
LC: We work with a company in Shanghai, China. The company is 50% state owned and 50% privately owned. What this means is that there’s strength and staying power in being state owned and there’s attention to quality control with “eyes on the ground” being privately run. With Sonnova Piano, we have chosen the parts we want to put into our pianos. For example, our cast iron plates are traditional sand-cast. Our hammers and strings are from Germany. We have bridges made out of maple and a robust 19 ply tuning pinblock. Our action parts are made out of hornbeam. Plus, there’s also a factory warranty. The fit and finish is excellent and we’ve been very happy with the end result.

GB: I believe this is the first launch of an online piano brand
LC: As far as I know, yes it is. And the online sales are becoming an increasing portion of our total sales.

GB: Hey Larry, one last question: What’s with all the colors?
LC: Piano is supposed to be fun right? Why not have a bit of fun in the cosmetic look of the piano as well. I mean, who wouldn’t want a St. Lucia blue piano in their house? (grins) We carry the usual black high polished ebony but also the clear acrylic pianos as well.
GB: I dunno, Larry. I think my favorite is Topaz Orange