Please forgive the length of this posting, but in my opinion, this is the sort of thing that needs to be related in detail.
Over a period of decades, I have purchased a lot of music-related gear, including some high-end acoustic instruments. Over the years I have gravitated more and more to a few vendors. For roughly 20 years I have been a customer of Elderly Instruments of Lansing, Michigan, and until a few days ago, I would have put them pretty much on the top of my list of music-related vendors that I like to do business with. While I've never yet bought a mandolin from Elderly, some years ago I purchased a Collings D-2H guitar from them, sight unseen, after receiving a "hands on" description from an Elderly expert over the telephone, and I was fully satisfied with that purchase. I have made innumerable orders for strings, instructional materials, CDs, accessories, mandolin cases, tuners, etc., no doubt totaling thousands of additional dollars. Errors have been rare, and when they occurred, were quickly rectified without hassle.
I have recommended Elderly to others.
[Last year, I was surprised and troubled to read a thread begun on the Acoustic Guitar Forum (AGF) by member AGF member Aloe --which ultimately ran to seven pages (it is here: http://www.acousticguitarforum.com/f...ents%22+cracks ) Aloe reported that he'd bought a used Lowden guitar from Elderly, found on receiving it that it had undisclosed cracks, and initially received a bad response from an Elderly employee. However, I was reassured when Stan Werbin, the owner of Elderly Instruments, later returned from a trip, rectified posted a detailed and gracious explanation in the thread itself, and rectified everything to Aloe's satisfaction (it is here:
But a few days ago Elderly treated me in a manner that I consider, frankly, to be shoddy -- indeed, to be a violation of elementary ethical principles. The episode has left me frustrated and baffled. Moreover, far from admitting error, the Elderly department manager responsible for the breach sent me an "explanation" that, to my ear, amounts to "tough luck, bub."
Here's what happened: I've been on the lookout for a specific model of Epiphone acoustic guitar, the Masterbuilt AJ-500MEVS. That's a knockoff of the slope-shouldered Gibsons, solid mahogany, with electronics and a sunburst finish. I have been watching the AGF Classified section but also some other sites, including, of course, Elderly. Late on Friday, April 4, I saw a fresh posting on the Elderly site for a used AJ-500M. Elderly was already closed for the day. The next morning (Saturday morning, April 5), I called the Elderly Mail Order department very shortly after they opened, and spoke with one of the regular Mail Order employees, a pleasant young man who I will refer to as "<employee name removed by moderator>" (I am withholding his real name by his request, although he is a regular Elderly Mail Order staff person whose name and photo are posted on the Elderly website). I told "<employee name removed by moderator>" that I had seen the ad for the used Epiphone Masterbilt AJ-500. <employee name removed by moderator> checked the database and confirmed that the guitar was still unsold.
Then I told <employee name removed by moderator> that before making a final decision, I needed a "hands on" inspection -- that is, the opportunity to ask a few questions of about the guitar of an Elderly expert who had the guitar in his hands. (The Elderly ad rated the Epiphone as Excellent Condition-Plus, but I had a few specific questions about the condition, set up, and electronics that were not answered in the ad.)
Here, I must pause to say a little more about these "hands on" inspections: As Stan Werbin himself explained in his AGF posting regarding the 2007 Aloe episode: "We have a general requirement to give a 'hands-on' description over the telephone (for most expensive instruments) because, although we make a very strong effort to give a full description of any flaws on used instruments, we too are just human, and sometimes a small flaw can be missed by the person doing the description. We would rather take the time, if you are seriously interested in it, to put the guitar in a new set of hands and look it over for you, than send you something you might be unhappy with. We don't want to surprise you except in a positive way when we send something, so this is the solution we have come up with to help insure that. If you waive that hands-on description then most of the time you should still be happy. If something shows up that wasn't otherwise noted on our description then we pay the price. But that's okay since we will allow you to waive the hands-on."
Thus, the "hands on" description is a something that Elderly strongly encourages. Moreover, I had followed this same procedure previously before I decided to buy the Collings from Elderly. With respect to the Collings, I found the procedure reassuring, because the man answering my questions was clearly knowledgable and seemed objective, and I was subsequently fully satisified when I received the guitar (which I still own).
But on the Epiphone, there was a hitch: "<employee name removed by moderator>" told me that both <employee name removed by moderator> and <employee name removed by moderator> were out for the day, and that no other employee was authorized to provide such hands-on reports. (Apparently this situation was somewhat unusual, and at least one "hands on" inspector is usually available even on a Saturday.)
(By the way, I am not breaching any privacy by mentioning these names -- all of the names, titles, and even photos of regular Elderly employees are posted on the Elderly website. I am sure that many of you have dealt with some of these same people.)
I expressed frustration, explaining to <employee name removed by moderator> that if I waited until Monday I would risk having somewhat else purchase the guitar in the meantime, but that I hated to purchase without getting answers to my questions from somebody who could hold the guitar while he answered. I asked, was it possible to place a "hold" on the guitar until I could be given the hands-on answers? <employee name removed by moderator> responded without hesitation, "Certainly." He took note of my name, address, and phone number (all of which was already in the Elderly database, since I've been an Elderly customer for about two decades), and said that the instrument would be on hold for me for "two business days," which he said meant through close of business on Tuesday, April 8. I said that I certainly would not wait that long, but would call Elderly promptly on Monday morning to get the hands-on questions.
But, worried, I immediately asked <employee name removed by moderator>: Is this guitar on display in the showroom? And if so, will the "hold" protect the guitar from being purchased in showroom? <employee name removed by moderator> checked the database again and confirmed that the guitar was indeed in the showroom-- but then he gave me a flat, unequivocal assurance that the effect of him entering the "hold" into the system would be to withdraw the guitar from sellable status, either in the showroom or by mail order, through the close of business on April 8.
Thus assured, I hung up and went on errands. When I returned home, I found on my answering machine a detailed message that <employee name removed by moderator> left on my answering machine at 12:52 PM EDT, or about two and one-half hours after we placed the "hold" on the guitar. (I have preserved this recording.) Apologetically, <employee name removed by moderator> said that the showroom staff had chosen to sell the guitar to a showroom customer -- even after he reiterated to them, verbally, that a hold had been placed on the guitar earlier that day. "They sold the guitar anyway," he said.
I could scarely believe my ears. I immediately called <employee name removed by moderator> back and asked if I understood correctly that the "hold" had been deliberately disregarded. <employee name removed by moderator>confirmed this. When the showroom staff contacted him about the hold, <employee name removed by moderator> said he told them that the buyer who had placed the hold was "serious," and that I had been promised a "hands on" session before making a final decision. <employee name removed by moderator> said he fully expected that this reiteration would be all that was needed to block the sale to the showroom customer.
I made clear my opinion that this was not right. After the end of the conversation, I wrote up an account of this episode and emailed it to <employee name removed by moderator> to see if I had anything wrong. I replied by email, "<employee name removed by moderator>, I understand your feelings of frustration at the situation that has developed, and I assure you, it was my belief that the hold (and my speaking with the showroom staff) would commit the instrument to you and prevent its sale until the end of business on 04/08/08. Any further action taken to resolve this matter is now in the hands of my superiors (I know the showroom manager will be contacting you). . ."
At about the same time I received an email from <employee name removed by moderator>, the Elderly showroom manager, to whom I assume my initial narrative had been forwarded. Here is the complete text of that email:
"Hi Douglas, My name is <employee name removed by moderator>, I'm the showroom manager at Elderly and I am the one who made the decision to sell the Epiphone earlier today. First of all, let me apologize for the frustration that this has caused. We do not take your business for granted and it is a very
tough day when we have to disappoint anybody (and especially a long-time customer). I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with us and you certainly deserve some kind of explanation, so here is why we made the decision we did: We have the sometimes precarious situation of having both a public showroom and an internet/mail order service which both advertise the same inventory. It is not often, but also not unheard of, that two people are simultaneously vying for the same item. It is then that we are faced with essentially the lose/lose situation where someone will be disappointed. It is the store policy that in these situations, a customer with the item in-hand has precedence over a phone customer. We still do everything we can to avoid the situation (including the suggestion of alternative items, an explanation of the situation, etc). However, please keep in mind that we don't usually realize that there is a conflict until they are actually trying to purchase the item, and usually after spending quite a while sampling many guitars. So, once again let me apologize. If you decide to post anything on the Internet I would only ask that you leave out the names of our employees (such as #[<employee name removed by moderator>]) who really are simply the messengers of bad news in this situation. Certainly feel free to contact me with any other concerns or questions as well. Best Regards, <employee name and contact info removed by moderator>"
<employee name removed by moderator> e-mail frustrated me further, because it evaded the main issues, and misstated the circumstances. In an email reply to <employee name removed by moderator>, I made several points, which I repeat in more polished form here: (1) This was not a case of a showroom customer trying to purchase the guitar while simultaneously I was trying to put a "hold" on it. <employee name removed by moderator> had confirmed, at the time the hold was placed, that the guitar was unsold. If I had given <employee name removed by moderator> my credit card number in that conversation, it is undisputed that the guitar would have been mine. During the two-and-one-half hour period that conversation and after the hold was placed, the in-store customer attempted the purchase. (2) I did not feel compelled to make the final decision during my initial call -- if I had been compelled, I may well have taken a chance and ordered the guitar -- because <employee name removed by moderator> gave me repeatedly, unqualified assurances that the hold would protect the guitar from sale to any other customer, either by mail order or in the showroom, through April 8. (3) When the showroom customer tried to buy the instrument, the showroom staff became aware of the hold. <employee name removed by moderator> then reaffirmed my hold. <employee name removed by moderator> unilaterially decided to disregard what <employee name removed by moderator> had explicitly promised me, and sold the guitar. I believe that this was an ethical breach. In effect, it didn't matter what Johnson had been promised, because there was another guy at the register with cash in hand. (If what <employee name removed by moderator> promised me was contrary to Elderly's policy and practice -- and nobody has exactly said that -- then his supervisors should have instructed him to make no more such promises in the future, but his superiors should still have honored the promise made to me, because I relied on it. (4) If <employee name removed by moderator> felt that that <employee name removed by moderator> had made a promise to me that for some reason could not or should not be honored, then I would have expected, at a bare minimum, that <employee name removed by moderator> would have telephoned me to give me the opportunity to buy or not buy on the spot. Something like this: "Mr. Johnson, what <employee name removed by moderator> promised you, about holding the guitar through Tuesday, we can't or won't stick to, but of course you still have the right of first refusal -- do you want to buy the guitar now, or not?" But no one claims that there was any attempt to contact me -- and my caller ID electronic log shows that no call came into my home, until the call from <employee name removed by moderator> reporting that the guitar had already been sold.
To all of these points, <employee name removed by moderator> has offered no reply.
My conclusions: It is an understatement to observe that this is no way to treat a customer of two decades. Or any customer. Clearly, it did not result from a foul up or from a failure of the right hand to know what the left hand was doing. It was, rather, apparently the result of a deliberate decision by an Elderly department manager to unilaterally violate an explicit commitment made to a customer, without so much as a courtesy call beforehand. This was unethical.
Unless I receive some explanation or rectification far more satisfactory than what has been provided to me to date, I will certainly be far more cautious about making major purchases from Elderly in the future, and I will be far more cautious in recommending their services to others as well.
Douglas Johnson / Maryland