Gear buyers love a good deal, and I love a good deal more than most. In today’s gear marketplace, deciding what constitutes a good deal entails a lot more variables than simply asking, “Who has the lowest price?”

Thirty years ago, getting the best deal was a pretty easy thing to define. You went to your local music store (or, if you were lucky, music stores), looked at the same item in each store and bought from whichever one had the lowest price. Pretty easy, right? Today, that method still works about the same for small items, such as guitar strings, polish and straps. The biggest difference in those products is that the local store now competes against online businesses for your money. The two things that local stores have to offer that online businesses do not are personal experience and immediacy. Your local store might be a dollar or two more expensive on an accessory, but, if you’ve frequented the local store, the staff knows you. They’re able to make suggestions and recommendations based on your history, and you can have the item you need right now. That service and immediacy has value.

Many buyers have chanted the well-known online mantra—“no sales tax saves me money”—so often that it’s become a truism. The problem with truisms, however, is that, sometimes, they are accepted as true only because they’ve been said frequently enough to have the ring of truth. The reality is, here in Mississippi, tens of millions of dollars of sales tax money that would have been collected through local stores is never collected on online purchases. This severely impacts the state’s ability to repair roads, replace bridges, fund education and [fill in the blank with your favorite gripe about inadequate state funding].

Roads, bridges and education might not seem directly connected enough to your online purchase to make a difference, and I get that. This week, though, we had a customer who had made an online guitar purchase from a box store, and now he’s wishing he’d spent his money with a local store. Let’s call this customer “Bob.”

Bob bought a major-brand archtop guitar, built in China, from a big-box online retailer. Bob paid the same price online ($799.99 MAP) that he would have paid at a local store. The difference is, had he bought the guitar from a local Mississippi retailer, he would have paid an extra $56 in sales tax. Thinking himself a savvy buyer, he was pretty happy about not having to pay sales tax. And, he got free shipping, too. Yep, Bob was pretty happy…until his guitar arrived.

When the guitar came, it didn’t play right. The strings rattled. It was out of tune the higher he went up the neck. He was disappointed. His “savvy” purchase suddenly felt like it had been a huge mistake. He couldn’t go over to the online retailer for help, although they did tell him he could pay to ship the guitar back and they’d have a look at it. But the return shipping—oversize, no shipping discounts, with insurance—would have more than wiped out his $56 in savings.

When Bob brought the guitar to us, the problem was evident. The online retailer he chose is little more than a “warehouse and ship” seller. Buy a guitar from them, and a box is yanked out of the warehouse and the customer receives it just as it was when it left the factory. No setup…no fresh strings…no test playing. Just a raw product in a box. His floating bridge was visibly out of place. No neck relief.

We saved his guitar for him, and he didn’t have to send it back. However, by the time the setup was done and new strings were added, he’d burned up his $56 in savings, plus some. Although he loves his guitar now, the hard lesson he got from his online “savings” will always add a bitter tinge to the joy of playing that instrument.

The “apple” is buying a guitar online at what looked like a savings of $56. The “orange” is this: Had Bob bought the guitar from us, the price would have been the same as the Internet business’ price, and he would have spent $56 in sales tax. The added value he would have received from buying the guitar from us, the local store, would have included the following:

  • The guitar would already have been set up
  • The guitar would already have been test played
  • If Bob preferred a different setup, we would have done that for free
  • If Bob preferred different strings, we would have put those on for free
  • At the $799.99 price point, we would have given Bob free maintenance on his guitar for life
  • Bob could have gotten $79.99 back as store credit after six visits to our store

When it’s all said and done, dodging the sales tax cost Bob about $60 in immediate savings (setup/strings), $80 in near-future savings (the six-visit store credit) and about $50 a year in free maintenance.

Math was not my strong suit in school, but I am sharp enough to know that saving $56 is a poor choice—for me and for the state treasury—as compared to putting $190 back in my pocket in the first year.

Buying online has its good points, but, on any sort of major purchase, it pays to take your time, ask a lot of questions and understand what variables are involved in making that major purchase.

It’s up to you to know whether you’re getting an apple or an orange.

Allen McBroom is a Partner at Backstage Music in Starkville MS.

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