Buying a harp – the San Francisco experience

Below is a copy of correspondence with the Haight-Ashbury Music store in San Francisco…

Thanks for your reply.
I came into your shop last week, but was bitterly disappointed by the level of service you gave me. I was all set to buy a dozen harmonicas, a Green Bullet and an amp, but came away with nothing. That’s a few 100 dollars worth of business.

I teach harmonica and have played for 25 years. I was the UK harmonica champion in 2000 and perform regularly with headline acts. I know my stuff and how to go about buying my instruments!

Your assistant was absolutely clueless about harmonicas and said so! In fact I ended up talking to one of your customers about which harmonicas to buy because the assistant was unable to provide basic information. This I can understand as I am not a guitar expert. But the level of attention and personal service was deplorable.

The main point, and you may well remember this, was when it came to buying the harmonicas. I explained to your assistant it is normal practice to pay up front and then test the instruments before leaving the premises. If a harp is evidently and audibly below specification, then it can be exchanged for a correctly working item. In my experience, this procedure is acceptable in the UK, in New York, in Chicago, in New Orleans. Sadly not in your shop – and this has nothing to do with California state law. It’s down to basic common sense and customer service.

The bellows you have will tell me whether or not the harmonica makes a noise. As would a device that plucks guitar strings for me. It won’t tell me if reeds bend correctly, octave and are in tune. Nor will it tell me if the harmonica is leaky or has reeds that rattle.

I stood for quite some time waiting for the ‘The Manager’ to finish on the phone – presumably this was yourself. Then, rather than get up off your chair to speak to me in person, you sent your assistant back to tell me that I would have to pay for the harmonicas and any that didn’t work would be sent back to the manufacturer. Presumably your policy would be the same for the Green Bullet and Twin Reverb. Which is when I left the shop utterly deflated.

  1. You couldn’t be bothered to get up and talk to me in person.
  2. You sent your assistant to deliver the bad news and he was clearly very uncomfortable with matters.
  3. I would be purchasing my harmonicas from you, the retailer, not the manufacturer. If you sold me something that did not work correctly I would expect to exchange it with you the retailer. Just as I would anything from a pair of shoes to an automobile. It is for you to sort out any poor goods with your suppliers. I don’t need to get involved with that.
  4. As I was visiting from the UK I doubt you would want to incur any costs in postage etc in sorting things out with the manufacturer. I guess I would be left to sort this out myself. At my own expense. I only need a harmonica, not the burden of sorting things out with your suppliers.
  5. You are the first retailer that has left me feeling so totally hacked off and unwelcome. And I came a long way to visit!

I would be interested to hear your feedback.
Richard Taylor

From: Judah Collins []
Sent: 16 October 2007 20:46
To: Richard Taylor
Subject: Re: Good morning!

yes we have lots of harmonicas, and we have the Shure Green Bullet and the Audix FireBall for mics. Also the Twin reverb.

please stop in!

Judah Collins
Haight Ashbury Music Center
1540 Haight Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
Mon-Fri 11-7, Sat 10-6, Sun 12-6

—– Original Message —–
From: Richard Taylor
Sent: Monday, October 15, 2007 6:13 AM
Subject: Good morning!

I will be coming to SF from England on Wednesday and am interested to know if you stock the following..Harmonicas (Hohner / Lee Oskar etc)
Harmonica Mics (Astatic JT30 / Sure Green Bullet / Hohner Bluesblaster)
Fender Amps – 59 Bassman / Twin Reverb
Grateful if you could let me know asap and, if poss, advise on prices?
Richard Taylor

5 thoughts on “Buying a harp – the San Francisco experience

  • October 21, 2010 at 9:53 am

    I can’t believe you had to get thru all that BS. Haight Ashbury Music, huh? I’ll send them a mail telling them they are not persona grata in my book anymore…
    Txs for sharing.

  • November 21, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    Hi Sunnyside! Thanks for your visit. In some ways it’s hard fors Brits visiting the US because we are accustomed to certain common courtesies when shopping. And of course service can sometimes be dire in the UK too. But there was no doubt a level of culture clash taking place. But as human beings we also instinctively know when our interests are not bring taken care of. Which is the case here I think.

    Also there is the intrinsic problem of buying an instrument which can only be tested as fit for purpose by placing it between the lips and breathing through it. Do people try out clarinets, saxophones and other wind instruments? What happens if they don’t work?

    I hate the fact that the retailer can apparently take your money, give a gallic shrug nd say ‘nothing to do with me.’ It’s fundamentally wrong.

    I fear that flower power and the spirit of intelectualism are long dead in Haight-Ashbury :O(

  • November 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    It’s never any fun being ignored and I sympathize with your predicament.
    I used to work for a music store in the states and I can relate to both sides of this story.

    We had a guy come in one afternoon, he was a little drunk and proceeded to test a harmonica despite our objections to testing it before buying. The result was that for the next couple of years the harmonica sat on a shelf collecting dust because we were unable to sell it due to the aforementioned state health law, or return it to the manufacturer. It eventually got trashed.

    I realize that you intended to buy your harmonicas before testing them, and as a fellow harp player I totally understand the reasons for doing so. I think that the manager of Haight could have made an effort to explain his reasons for not letting you test them beforehand, if only as common courtesy.

    That said, I think that shops in the U.K. may have a better relationship with harmonica manufacturers or possibly more rights regarding the return of customer purchased merchandise that is defective. In many cases U.S. stores cannot return merchandise of any kind for customers, and it is left up to the customer to bear the hassle of returning merchandise. Laws also vary by state with consumers having more rights regarding returned merchandise in one state than another in many cases.
    Regarding testing of saxes etc, if the customer brought their own mouthpiece in they were allowed to test an instrument, otherwise no.

    An even worse case for harmonica players is Japan. I have been to numerous music stores and they don’ t even have a bellows to perform a rudimentary function check. No testing in the store with the possibility of exchanging defective merchandise after purchase, and all returns must be handled with the manufacturer. Speaking of that, I have heard Suzuki has an excellent customer return policy on defective merchandise, luckily I haven’t had to find out yet.

    Despite the aforementioned annoyances, I must say that on the whole customer service in Japan is excellent, and most of the staff at the music stores were very polite and helpful in all other aspects.

    Thanks for the information about how it works in the U.K.
    Happy trails,

  • November 1, 2012 at 11:22 pm

    Hi Wade. Thank you for your beautifully balanced contribution. I guess I may have been superimposing my ‘European’ expectations on the American reality with regards to consumers’ rights. I’d also maintain we all know when we’re getting good service or poor..

  • May 18, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    I would not purchase a harp in a store that allowed a customer to play a harp before purchasing it. How would you know that they put the harp back up for sale.. just saying.

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