It was time to polish my spyglass in preparation for a long journey to the land of horses and bluegrass. (That’s bluegrass as in Kentucky bluegrass, not the style of music.) But, I’ll bet there is plenty of music there, as well.

My assignment, if I chose to accept it (which I did), was to shop four music retail stores in Lexington KY and report back to The Chief on how the stores performed. I have to admit that I did spend some of my time looking for bluegrass, only to find out that I was in the wrong season.

The weather was still warm—OK, it was darn hot—but The Chief wanted this done and I needed to carry out my mission. The strict deadline that he’d imposed forced me to shop in the heat of the summer. It was, as I said, too late to take in the famed blue colors of the state.

Lexington is a beautiful city surrounded by impeccably well groomed horse farms. You could eat off the stable floors. I found people to be warm, kind and laid back.

Doo Wop Shop
443 Southland
Lexington, KY 40503
After a little bit of confusion on the GPS and hitting a McDonald’s for a huge sweet tea to get me through the heat, I stopped at my first destination: Doo Wop Shop. I walked in and found two young men manning the store. I figured these two would know what I needed as The Chief gave me the assignment of looking for a keyboard. “It should be like what you’d play in a rock band,” he had said. I don’t know a lot about that, but I figured I could use the old “my daughter is looking for a keyboard for my grandson” routine. It is somewhat true, as he is taking keyboard in school this year. So, my daughter might be looking for one.

The store was cute in that it lived up to its name, with a classic car sitting out front, “Doo Wop” neatly painted on it. It was a cool ride. The store was in a plaza, well marked and easy to access from a main road.

My first impression? There was a lot of merchandise. It was a good thing. Not blow you away organized, but not irritatingly “can’t find what you want,” either. It was clean and a good size. This is one of four Doo Wop Shops.

I was greeted nicely as I walked in with a “How’s it goin’?”

“Good,” I replied. “How about you?”

“Not too bad,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

I told him I was looking for keyboards. The keyboards were right beside the sales counter, so he came around and stood there with me. I initiated a little more conversation, saying I was looking around and pricing keyboards for my daughter and that my grandson was interested in being in a rock band. I could tell he was not really up on his keyboards, but did not think too much about it. He could have been new or a brass player, etc.

He asked if I thought he (my grandson) wanted a weighted key. “We have several here with weighted keys,” he said. He also pointed out that there was a synthesizer, as well. He asked my price range, to which I candidly responded, “I have no clue.”
He suggested the Casio Privia, saying it was the most popular and it had built-in speakers so that he would not need an amp, but could add one in the future. “That Casio Privia there is going for about,”—get that…“about”—“$785 new and they rent out for $50 a month.” He added that they were nice keyboards.

Then, he pointed out a high-end Roland (FP4F) and, in his words, it went for about “two grand.” He said he would not recommend starting with it. He added that it was an awesome keyboard and that he would highly recommend it if my grandson ever got to that level. That one rented out for $125 a month.

The most inexpensive keyboard was the Casio CDK 2100, which, he said, “goes for about a hundred, I think.” He said it rents for $8 or $9 a month, saying it as though it was a question. He then had me push down on the keys to show me the difference in touch of a weighted keyboard and one that wasn’t. At this point, the other salesman came over and said that the Casio was $119.95 and rented for $8 a month. Now we had that cleared up!

I asked if these keyboards could be set to make different sounds like a synthesizer. He said yes, like organ sounds and piano sounds, and he thought it had a sound bank with percussion.

I asked about the warranty and he said it was just the manufacturer’s warranty and that Doo Wop had a 30-day return policy. I also asked if something went wrong with it and I needed the keyboard fixed where I would need to take it to be fixed, querying whether I would have to send it away. He said they had a number for a repair guy.

He did suggest the Privia with the built-in speakers and played a few notes so I could hear that it had a good tone to it. The other salesman also pointed out that there was a PX130. The first salesman said, “Oh yeah…it goes for what, $300?” Salesman two said it was $540 to $560 and it was still the Casio series, just with fewer features. There was also an M-Audio Pro Keys 88 synthesizer and a Roland GW8, selling for $1,100.

They did have a selection: not huge, but enough to get a good idea of what was out there and the price ranges. I asked if they had lessons at the store and he said no, but he could give me the name of a teacher they would recommend. The second salesperson seemed to be more knowledgeable about the keyboards and prices.

The first gentleman yawned a lot—rough night, I guess, or I was boring him with my questions—but he was pleasant. Not that I am really picky, because I am a laid-back, like-to-be-comfortable person, but they could have been dressed just a little better. It was hard to distinguish if they worked there or were just hanging out.

I thanked them both, told them to have a good day and they said, “You, too! Come back and see us.” I would consider buying there. They were friendly, helpful and pleasant, just not zoned in on the exact prices.

I then drove to my next destination, which was also in a plaza but was not as well marked. It took a little bit of maneuvering to find it. The GPS kept telling me I was there, but the store’s sign, from the road, was not especially visible and, yes, my glasses were clean.

Willis Music
161 Lexington Green Circle
Lexington, KY 40503
I walked through the door of Willis Music and was greeted by salesperson one (Sales 1) sitting behind the counter. He softly said, “Hello.” I asked, “How are you?” He made some loud groaning sound that did not resemble any words I recognized. He continued to sit behind the counter, while salesman two (Sales 2) was helping a customer close by.

The store was set up so that the keyboards and pianos were in a room with a big opening in sight of the sales counter. I wandered around for five minutes and the groaning man continued to sit there. Eventually, the phone rang and he answered it. He spoke with the person on the other end of the phone for quite awhile as I was checking out the keyboards.

I was doing everything an interested customer would be doing: writing down prices, intently looking at the keyboards, holding the tags in my hand and reading them and all the time continuing to look out at the counter, figuring, sooner or later, someone would come and ask me what my interest was.

At this point, Sales 1 was off the phone and sitting there at the computer. Someone else had come in and Sales 2 was helping that person. I continually positioned myself so they could see me, hear me and notice that I was writing things down. I was definitely interested. I began to approach the counter and Sales 1 to ask for help when the phone rang and he answered it.

I was walking all around trying to get their attention, all the time writing down brands of keyboards. Some were marked with prices and some were not. There was no real rhyme or reason to the system…no consistency that I could see. I may not know keyboards well, but I did take merchandising classes at the Yamaha Corporation. This would not have passed the test.

I continued to watch the time as minutes passed and still no one seemed interested in what I wanted to buy. There was a Yamaha keyboard package—PSR E413 with headphones, stand, bench and sustain pedal with a three-year warranty for parts and labor—selling for $399. There was a Roland V Combo Keyboard, VR 700, list price $2,329 selling for $1,999.99 or renting for $80 a month.

I decided to move closer to Sales 2. I was physically standing at the case and counter where the harmonicas were when salesperson two came over and asked a third customer standing there what he was looking for. I stood in the line of sight waiting for him to say something, such as, “I’ll be with you in a moment,” but nothing.

The phone rang and Sales 1 answered it. So, now, he has been sitting there about 20 minutes on and off the phone, while I, the potential customer, was waiting for help. Sales 2 was playing harmonicas and talking about illnesses while I was leaning on the counter watching. I was still not helped. I would like to say that it was an honest mistake, but I felt that I was ignored. In total, four customers were, at some point, waited on by Sales 2, while Sales 1 sat at the counter, answered the phone and then disappeared as I stood waiting to buy an expensive piece of equipment.

I had been in the store for 23 minutes. I heard Sales 2 say something about going somewhere and I assumed he was going to help the harmonica customer to their car with a purchase. There was silence in the store at the count of 26 minutes. I walked over to the first piano, an upright, and leaned on it while staring at Sales 1 back at the counter. He didn’t seem to be doing anything. Once again, as I started over to ask for help, the phone rang and he answered it. That is when I saw Sales 2 was outside smoking. He was there for approximately 12 minutes, while I was waiting for some help.

I continued to move so they could see I was still there and looking at them. Sales 1 answered the phone again and the other was still outside. I do believe the calls were not of a personal nature, but he was friendly and laughing while I was watching and waiting. I continued to watch the man outside smoke and walk around on the sidewalk. He could see me, I’m sure.

I was writing down more prices when I realized a couple of the signs had Christmas trees on them. I have heard of Christmas in July, but I would bet these were still there from last December. I saw a Yamaha Arius Classic (list price: $2,199; purchase price: $1,799.99) and a Yamaha Synthesizer (list price: $1,299; purchase price: $999.99) and renting for $40 per month.

Now at the 38-minute mark, Sales 2 came in and sat down at the counter while I was standing about 15 feet away and Sales 1 had disappeared again. He sat there and messed around on the computer and the phone rang as I was walking toward him to ask for help. He answered it and spoke, with Sales 1 not in sight. (Even with my spy surveillance technology, I could not find him.)

After Sales 2’s phone call ended, he went straight to another customer that had come in while he was on the phone. I was not between him and the customer, but I was within three or four feet of him when he did walk by. He did glance my way, kind of like he was trying not to look at me, if you know what I mean.

I had been in the store for 45 minutes, with plenty of time for either person to help me. I was in sight, most of the time. In all honesty, they both had seen me walk in and browse around.

I did not interrupt them while they were with another customer or on the phone. I did not create a scene as someone might if they were ignored and wanted to buy something. As a true spy, I felt it was important to let them act naturally. But, I did do what probably any potential customer would do at this point: I walked out.

No one stopped me, asked if there was something they could help me with, apologized that they did not help me or even flinched a muscle as I walked by and strolled right out the door.

I normally am not an impatient person…but 48 minutes? I think anyone would have been a little irritated. In 12 minutes short of an hour, no one had said a word other than the original hello and groan.

Walking to the car, I thought that it was too bad that they did not feel the need to at least address the fact I was in the store. The store had a lot of inventory and seemed like you could find just about anything you would need as a musician or future band member. It was a good-sized store with a good selection of keyboards, pianos, instruments, music and more.

Guitar Center
3801 Mall Rd.
Ste. 150
Lexington, KY 40503
The next location, Guitar Center, provided a great improvement in customer service. I was greeted in a friendly manner by more than one salesperson and was walked back to the keyboard selection. The salesperson was asking me questions to qualify just what I was looking for and how I was going to use it.

It was recommended that I buy a keyboard with 88 keys fully weighted. He played a Casio CDP 120 that listed for $599 and sold for $399.99. He said it had a good sound and had jacks for an amplifier or PA system. If I wanted to step up, the Yamaha P95B listed for $899 and sold for $549. He said it had a great sound and played it. Another step up was the Casio PX (list: $899; selling for $699), which he also played. He added that, if I wanted to step up to a Yamaha Work Station, it was $1,000. He also showed me a Roland Synthesizer and demoed it: a JUNO-Di at a cost of $699.

The salesperson recommended the weighted keys because it had the feel of a real piano and was equipment that my grandson could grow up with. He added it should have all 88 keys so he would not be missing notes. “It depends how seriously you are looking to get into it,” he said. The first one he showed me, the Casio, would be good to start with and would last awhile. If my grandson really got into it, then a Work Station would be what I would want.

Guitar Center did not offer lessons, but offered names of teachers. He said they had very good warranty programs. “Two- or three-year coverage,” he said. It covered anything that happened, including broken keys or accidents. He explained that Yamaha had a one-year limited warranty, but would not cover accidents. “You have 60 days to bring it back to the store. If something happens after that, you call the number and the company pays for shipping to send it back for repair or replacement.” He handed me the pamphlet on Guitar Center’s warranty and asked when my daughter planned to come in. I said I wasn’t sure. So, he handed me his card and said she could call him or see him when she came in.

He was pleasant and helpful. The store was organized and had a lot of stock. Several people spoke to me while I was there. I would have considered purchasing the product he had suggested.

Gist Piano Center
3901 Harrodsburg Rd.
Lexington, KY 40513
After a brief iced tea break in my air-conditioned car, I pulled into Gist Piano Center. I was greeted upon opening the door with a very pleasant and upbeat, “Hello.” I was asked what I was looking for. The salesperson asked if it was for me. I said no and that it was for my grandson. I explained that he had taken some keyboard in school and now, of course, wanted to be in a rock band.

She pointed out two full-size keyboards that she thought would be good, saying, in a fun way, “This way, he will have all the appropriate keys.” She added that the keyboards she was showing me had weighted keys and a similar touch to an acoustic piano. The salesperson showed me a Yamaha that she recommended for beginners and said it was very basic and had a few different sounds on it. She demonstrated several sounds, plus the built-in metronome and recording option.

Upon demonstrating the Roland FP4, she said it had hammer action and would be most similar to the feel of an acoustic piano. She had me try it, so I could feel the difference. She explained that there were springs in the keys of the Yamaha and, over time, they could wear out, making a difference in the touch.

Also, the key was more consistent in touch as you pressed it down closer to the keyboard, whereas the Yamaha got tighter as you moved toward the top of the key. It just made a difference in the playability, she said. You could use a flash drive in the Roland if you wanted to play MIDI files and it was possible to combine voices.

The salesperson continued to demo while explaining. She also said the display was just a little bit better to see on the Roland and that it had “supernatural” sound in it, saying it had to do with dynamics. “The keyboards are electronic instruments and, when you keep your finger on the key, it continues to play the recorded sound over and over again, whereas the Roland sound dies out like an acoustic piano.” Both came with a sustain pedal.

The Yamaha was $549 and the Roland package price was $1,988, and that included a month of lessons and headphones. The basic price for the keyboard was $1,699. Both of them had a stand to hold the music.

She said they did not have lessons there at that exact time, but would have them on site very soon. “We have a ‘partners in education’ group with the teachers we work with all over Kentucky,” she said.

And, she explained that she could set my grandson up with lessons and that the teachers would be on-site. “We just did an extension on the store and put in lesson studios. We are still finishing up the touches on that and then there will be lessons here,” she said.

As far as warranty, she said, with the Roland, it was five years and, with the Yamaha, it was one year. If something went wrong with the keyboard, they have people they recommend in the area to fix it.

She was recommending the Yamaha for a beginner, but did reiterate the fact that the Yamaha has springs and the touch would change over time.

She gave me her card and said there was a lot of information on their Web site, including videos to watch and plenty of other things.
They do not rent the keyboards. The important thing to keep in mind, she said, was this: “Most people will quit playing when they start on keyboards, because they don’t get the right keyboard. Some are smaller and the keys are not the appropriate length.”

She shared with me that the way to tell if they were the appropriate length was to take a dollar bill and measure it, showing me that the key should come to the green line. “Shorter keys become a problem, especially if he would play on an acoustic piano or someone else’s piano. His feeling of touch is going to be wrong and it is going to be super frustrating. Also, look for something with weighted keys and that has 88 keys,” the salesperson explained.

She thanked me for coming in and I was to let her know if she could be of more help. “It is exciting that he wants to play,” she said. She explained that, if I was looking for teachers, I could find their profiles, phone numbers, addresses and teaching philosophy on the Web site. I told her I was checking prices, and she said it was good to do my homework. When I left, I thanked her and she said, “You have a great day.” I found this salesperson to be the most knowledgeable of all the stores and very upbeat and friendly, truly wanting me to make the correct choice.

The Sale
So, now it is time for this Spy to choose the winner. I don’t think I can pick a winner! Doo Wop Shop had a decent selection, but the salespeople could have had a little more knowledge. I did like the stock and the fact that they had the two Casios and suggested the one with less features, saying it would be good for someone starting out.

Willis Music in Lexington is out of the running completely. Guitar Center did a good job and had a good selection. The salesman was knowledgeable and pleasant. It was difficult to compare prices, because there were so many different models. However, for the features offered, they were comparable.

As I was spying, I had no idea where I would buy. However, after writing this, if the price were comparable with the other stores…drum roll please…

I would like dealing with Gist Piano Center. That’s because of the salesperson. I felt comfortable with the information she gave me and felt that they would take care of me. She was honest, in-depth about the products and seemed to want my grandson to enjoy the instrument. I would go with the Yamaha because of the price for a beginner, knowing that, if he became serious about playing, Gist would be there to fill future needs.

However, I feel that Guitar Center would be great, as well, and I probably would not hesitate to purchase the products they had from that salesperson. I also would have purchased from Doo Wop, but would have wanted a better price quote and a little more in-depth information.

As an actual consumer, I would repeat my visits to three of the stores and go over prices and features one more time before making the final decision.

I think most of us like pleasant, upbeat salespeople. Gist also had it all together when it came to social media, Web site, QR code and everything else.

Gist just knew their stuff!

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