digital keyboards at Guitar Center, Guitar Center El Cerrito

The Good, Bad and Ugly: Shopping at Guitar Center in El Cerrito

I rarely go public with my comments on customer service because I’m not inclined to “yelp!”

Yelp.com is an Internet site for consumers to yell or qvell (Yiddish for rave positively) about every kind of store imaginable; to rate physicians, lawyers, vets, pet groomers, and every ethnic restaurant known to mankind. You just type in the name of your city in the search window, and enjoy the ratings ride.

One San Joaquin Valley doc, for example had acquired over 15 negative narratives on Yelp, and she was still practicing. So what else was new?

Today I decided to officially join the ranks of my fellow Yelpers and come out of my anonymous closet. The occasion of this new found public declaration of consumer advocacy was triggered by my recent shopping experience at the Guitar Center on San Pablo in El Cerrito, California.

After I  had arrived at the Del Norte Bart Station following my Amtrak trip to Richmond from Fresno, I decided to take  a brisk walk along San Pablo. It’s a busy, trafficked street bustling with car repair centers, gasoline stops, banks, closely spaced Chinese restaurants, thrift and button stores, art galleries, a natural foods outlet, an Internet cafe, and every type of business a stroller could dream up along the way.

My destination was clearly the Guitar Center on Eureka because I needed to check out a few Casio Privia line digital keyboards for some students who were in the market. In the past I had accompanied at least ten of them to the sister store in Fresno, where we had sampled a wide variety of brands including Yamaha, Korg, Roland and Casio. I’d never had a problem.

While I was not a proponent of electronic instruments, preferring that my students acquire an acoustic piano before they started lessons, I realized how economic realities and space considerations might steer buyers in other directions.

Having this awareness, I entered the holiest of white buildings along San Pablo. It was an imposing structure with stark red emblazoned letters on its facade inviting shoppers of all denominations, shapes and sizes to enter the hip hop establishment and BUY!!  Keyboards had always been a big draw!

Once the front desk person checked me for any straddling bags that could be repositories for stolen goods like hidden mics, mini speakers, earphones, tuning forks, banjo picks, cowbells, finger cymbals, triangles, cassette tapes, God only knows what, I headed right for the keyboard “emporium.”

That was my description of the whole psychedelic area devoted to electronic music technology with its flashy accessories, blinking lights, and keyboard blasting overkill! I had to hold my ears to mute the screeching noises and blasphemous heaves emanating from some kind of super amplified multi-track speaker system.

In the din of this hyped environment, I sauntered over to a marked off area that had mounted keyboards, two of which were the Casio digitals, PX130 and 320 and attempted to try them out by running my fingers over the keys. To my surprise there was absolutely no sound, just blanks. I tried again, and then numerous times I went between the top tier Privia 320 model and then down to the 130 without any success. Still no pitch, frequencies or harmonics. These keyboards were flat liners!

The Korg on the first tier seemed to work because it had the right size transformer attached allowing an electrical connection but I was disappointed in its overall tone and would never have recommended it. But at least it had the power button showing a red beam of light.

When I was about to lose my mind tinkering with the Casios and getting nowhere, a sales person with a relaxed demeanor and pleasant smile approached the area. Immediately, he sized up the situation and apologized for my not being able try out the keyboards, explaining that the transformers were “always being stolen by customers.” I responded with urgency, “So why don’t you just keep one or two transformers in a secure area and take them out only when customers request to try out a digital. That way you can monitor them.” An employee within earshot of us, chimed in, “That just makes too much practical sense.” He was being sarcastic. At that moment, he was helping a seven year old and his mother find a microphone for a small size violin.

Within minutes his sidekick, my customer service agent disappeared into the “warehouse in the back,” renewing his pledge to find a transformer that would be compatible with both the Casio PX 130 and 320. I wasn’t holding my breath.

After an excruciatingly long time, Mr. Guitar Center helper returned with what appeared to be a transformer that would not fit the models I was familiar with, and after I pointed this out, he still tried to make it work, despite its obvious incompatibility. Another 5 minutes  went down the tubes while I re-heard his same droning complaint that “too many customers snagged the transformers when they’d been out on the floor.”

Finally in the heat of his own frustration, he had the chutzpah to  blurt out an outrageous suggestion: “Well, maybe you just want to buy one of the Casios, try it out at home, and bring it back if you don’t like it.”

I was aghast! Another 7 minutes dribbled by and we were into the third quarter past the noon hour when I had first entered the store. I mimicked the salesperson in a sassy way. “Try out the keyboard at home? I said. “Like I should purchase a car without test driving it?” My whiny Bronx, New York accent was full blown. I could have been Joan Rivers pushing him over the brink with more and more jibes. But I let up in the nick of time.

He looked stunned. His frozen, blank stare indicated that nothing had really registered.  Yet for one record setting last time he disappeared down a narrow hallway for a quarter hour, probably stopping off to have a quick snack along the way or perhaps a shot of booze to quell his nerves.  In any case, he came back again empty handed and was suddenly distracted by a friend who entered the store. I recognized “Oscar Autie,” the renowned recording engineer whose clients were Grammy winners. Recently, I had visited his high tech state of the art studio up in the Hills, and was very impressed with his newly acquired Yamaha grand. After greeting him, I noticed that my Guitar Center helper was immersed in assisting him with finding a device for his recording equipment, completely forgetting his mission to help me locate a transformer. Another 7 minutes of highway robbery!

And where was the store manager to report all these baffling delays and procrastinations? I nodded to the side kick who couldn’t identify the mic needed for a distressed child to affix to her violin. I would ask him to disclose the name of the “supervisor,” “manager,” whatever of this funky place.

“Well,” he answered, wryly, “the fellow who’s been helping you all along is the manager, at least, for today. He’s subbing for ‘Chuck.’ ”

It was all over! I would no longer prod or pressure the so called helper. It was time for me to move on.

At this defining moment of my visit to Guitar Center, I was resigned to winning a booby prize. I would redirect my energy to secure a piano style pedal for my Casio PX 110 digital.

The little square plastic pedals that came with a new one in the box, forever slipped, slid and ambled away just when you needed them. One sustained the sound, and the soft pedal to mute it. After all was said and down, I’d go to the Internet to purchase a more substantial steel pedal mounted on a platform.

Okay, so now I wondered if I could anticipate another lengthy soap opera surrounding the purchase of a “Live Wire” or “M Audio” piano style pedal at Guitar Center.

The item should have been easy to access since the sales guy who was situated behind the cash register in the Accessories department, stood in front of a computer, scanning a list of the store’s inventory. When he announced that he’d finally located the pedal, he turned around to check the shelf behind him but found nothing, not even a sign of  the “Live Wire or the M Audio.” “Gee,” he said, “we don’t seem to have either one of those pedals in the store.” Would he retread the same line about the customers stealing the merchandise. If that were really the case, Guitar Center in El Cerrito should have declared bankruptcy and moved on to another city.

To cut to the chase of this long-winded sob story, just as the clock struck 1 p.m. the Guitar store employee who tried to help me, came up with a winning solution to my pedal problem. Quickly, he raced over to the area with the mounted keyboards and snagged a pedal from the Korg down below. While it was fairly scuffed up from use by customers, it was still worth buying if I could get it for a steal. (No pun intended)

The sales guy was amenable to cutting a deal, and wrote up an invoice for $21, saving me about $10. This last ditch bone that he threw to me finally constituted the GOOD part of the Guitar Center experience that followed the Bad and the Ugly.

Redux: I will always cling to the parting words of my customer service helper as I retreated to the front door to exit the store.

“Hey, now,  if the pedal doesn’t work after you try it out at home, just be sure to bring it back.”

Footnote: Today I jogged over to the Fresno Guitar Center on Blackstone and Barstow where the keyboards were neatly mounted and ready to sample. I finally ran my fingers over a bunch of them and was ready to make my recommendations.