Haggling has become a part of the culture of violin buying, but musicians prove to be very inexperienced negotiators. The results can end up as a road crash, and can have unintended negative consequences for buyer and seller alike. Benjamin Hebbert explains some of the processes behind pricing instruments, and how to get the most for your money when purchasing an instrument.
Every violin dealer I know would like to see a more transparent market. 99% of retail sales happen because people are prepared to pay the price that is asked – you don’t go to Tesco’s and challenge the price of a can of beans, but in some markets it becomes par for the course. It’s almost unheard of for someone to make an offer at the asking price, and whilst modern manufactured instruments tend to go for the price on the price tag, musicians tend to be cultured to contest the price on fine stringed instruments, largely because they have been told to by their teachers and their peers. In our world reputable dealers put considerable expertise and wisdom into finding a fair price to sell instruments at, whereas musicians spend very little time looking at prices and getting a grasp on the market, so tend to be pretty uninformed about either how to haggle, or about how much they can negotiate off the price. Things become very difficult for both sides when the culture of haggling becomes an ingrained element of the deal. Whose to blame? We tend to blame the dealers who seem to be in control, but there are hundreds of times more musicians who impose their own ideas of how to buy. At the end of the day, both sides influence the market, but the numbers say it all.
In today’s market, better instruments tend to sell on commission, and the job of the dealer as bound by Fiduciary Duty is to work out a fair return for the owner, whilst adding a fair rate of commission and coming out with a fair sale’s price. This is ancient law that underpins the fabric of a huge swathe of legislation and means that the dealer’s first obligation is towards the trust between those two parties. No dealer wants to overprice an instrument because at best it will remain unsold, and at worst, it will come back to bite them in a future part-exchange. Everything has to be carefully balanced, and often the vendor has vested interests in keeping the price as high as they can make it, and the dealer is the person putting an element of reality into the sales price.
Some while ago, a customer was looking for a violin for £10,000. Once they had settled on a violin of their choice, they asked if they could negotiate the price.
“£7500” they said – a whole 25% off the price of the violin.
I asked if I could make a counter offer. £12,500 – a whole 25% on top of the price of the violin I said, and they looked puzzled, maybe just a little angry.
“Why?” they asked…
“Well”, I said, “you want to purchase this violin and we both agree the fair price is £10,000. You want to walk away with £2,500 extra in your pocket, and I’d quite like to do the same. What say we settle half way, and I’ll sell it, and you’ll pay the sum that we both agree is the fair.” My client thought on it for a little while, shook hands and the deal was done.
– My client has been happy ever since.
Every instrument comes with its own politics, that are privy to the dealer and the owner. Sometimes someone has owned a violin for so long that its value has shot up beyond all expectation. They may be willing to let it go to the right person for a lower price. Some would just like to get a fairly fast equitable sale so that they can pay off part of a new instrument, or go on a retirement world cruise. Others may have strong reasons to pitch for the highest possible price and stick to it like glue. A certain number of instruments may actually belong to the dealer, and again the owner has the right to decide to ride things out, or to prefer turning things over rather than holding out for the maximum sum. Essentially everything is up for negotiation, but that is a different matter from treating people fairly. Hence, when a dealer quotes a fair retail price, that reflects what the market should hold for the instrument. It may be the only price possible.
As a result, there is no point in trialling an instrument for two weeks, only to discover that your tactics for negotiating the price are going to fall on deaf ears. That’s time and opportunity wasted on both sides when a simple answer could have been provided much earlier on.
I often find that writing your limits on a piece of paper that you have firmly in your pocket proves a strong psychological barrier to overspending.
My best advice is to go into a violin shop with a clear idea of what you want to spend. Do the maths first of all, and by all means have discussions with violin shops and other experts. Most of all, figure out what you can afford and what you are prepared to spend. I often find that writing your limits on a piece of paper that you have firmly in your pocket proves a strong psychological barrier to overspending. Amongst the musician’s world there is a huge perception that as soon as you give your budget away, a prowling dealer will rise instruments to that price – try to take as much as your money in return for as little as possible. You can be the judge of that, and if you think you are being taken for a ride, you can respond to that accordingly. (Communicating your budget will be the subject of another blog… watch this space). Hopefully the dealer will show you a range of instruments up to your budget, both to let you learn what you get for your money, and to see if you can do better for less. You’re less likely to get a discount here on instruments that are below your budget, for obvious reasons, but if you are getting something that suits you better for 25% under your budget, you are obviously in a winning position, but be upfront and ask if there is any lee-way. Ultimately if as you keep trying instruments with a dealer, they will start to look at the more expensive instruments and see if they can reduce the price to meet your budget. With negotiations done and dusted, you can have your two weeks trial, confident that you can afford the instrument and that you are being treated fairly. Remember as well that the end price isn’t necessarily the most important thing for a dealer. I may well have more incentive to sell you a £5000 violin that I own, than a £10,000 violin that I take a 25% commission over, so don’t run to assumptions.
Making a lower offer later on, is really not a good idea unless you have firm reasons to do it. Frankly it’s a bit dishonest to take an instrument out at a price that you don’t intend to pay, and that will often show through in your negotiations. The two weeks or so that you are allowed to take an instrument on trial is also your time to research the market, get second opinions and see if another shop can simply offer you something better. Let’s say, you like a similar, cheaper violin from another shop just as much as the one you are trying and can’t justify the difference in price. Tell the dealer straight out. Let’s say you have some concerns about it’s condition having taken it for a second opinion. None of these things are deal-breakers, and nothing absolutely guarantees a reduction in the price, but they are the kind of negotiating points that you can work on. If the price of the violin vastly differs from the price you are willing to offer, it is worth making the point, but you are probably better pulling out of the deal.
One of the most important parts of negotiating is to understand that lies are like Gremlins. Telling fibs during a negotiation has an inexplicable tendency to be found out. Worse still, it’s almost like opening Pandora’s Box (or splashing water on a Mogwai) as once a dishonesty is bouncing around the room it is indiscriminate in the damage that it will cause, and it will diminish trust in both parties. By experience, it makes both parties less amenable to the other person’s point of view. It makes it more likely that a deal will fall though, and more likely that grievances will emerge along the way. At best, if you continue your search, you will have cut off one option for purchasing. In a small community where that may be your only violin shop, that’s a needless relationship to fall into. Anyone who is not experienced in negotiation runs the risk of crossing the line accidentally, and fortunately most violin dealers are experienced enough to understand to take a step back, but sometimes people cannot be saved from falling into the hole they have dug for themselves. It works both ways.
Be clear and straightforward. Most people with the passion to run violin shops want to do the best for their clients. If you can approach them openly, you will get the same respect back. If you try to beat the dealer, you may bring about your own misfortune.