Steinway Hits Right Keys With Site Search

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Steinway & Sons, the world's preeminent piano maker, is adept at tuning keys. How about keywords?

The family-owned firm recently tweaked the search function of its Web site at www.steinway.com. Using PicoSearch's customized hosted site search tool, Steinway now can index the pages of its site better, delivering information like piano model, history and style.

Even a bespoke manufacturer like Steinway receives queries on its site. And those searches often lead to sales inquiries.

So PicoSearch, Cambridge, MA, offers the flexibility and scalability to accommodate visitors drawn to Steinway.com through marketing, word of mouth or a reputation stretching back to a couple presidencies before Lincoln's.

Still, when one thinks of a Steinway, the Internet does not strike a chord.

Handholding and Folding

A Steinway piano is an Old World jewel. A visit to the Steinway factory in New York's Astoria neighborhood is a step back in time in terms of refinement and craftsmanship. Little has changed since the German piano-making family set up shop in 1853.

Take the piano's manufacture. Each unit is handcrafted from six kinds of wood by more than 50 pairs of hands. Each corner and crevice of the instrument has been designed for a reason. No two pianos sound the same.

A Steinway takes two years from the time the wood arrives at the factory lot to its transformation into an elegant piano destined for the showroom or customer's music room.

The manufacturing process goes from being machine-cut to hand-steamed and folded. The piano's body is formed through the layering of many sheets of thin wood that includes gluing and sliding into a cast-iron molding. Five big men are responsible for this process.

On a separate floor, the keys are all made from a single block of wood and padded with a layer of cotton. This is cut down on a diagonal angle to give the keys different lengths and, thus, notes. The keys are coated with a synthetic material instead of ivory as done in years past when the ban was not imposed.

Steinway's factory is a part of the Old World: The excess wood from the pianos is used to maintain the building's floorboards, the workers are skilled specialists and the pianos are one of a kind. Does the business model still work for a company whose biggest competitor is its past product?

"The question is not whether or not to buy a Steinway," said Leo Spellman, senior director of communications at Steinway. "The question is whether to buy new or to buy vintage."

The site seems to signify the crossing of the Old World with the new, as the economics of constructing 3,000 products a year -- only 570,000 total in the past 150 years -- and employing 500 workers in New York are a carryover from the past, even if the products do retail upward of $50,000.

In Tune to iTunes

How does the centuries-honed sophistication in design enter the new world of online shopping? Imagine going to Steinway.com and adding a piano to your cart. It may take awhile. The idiosyncrasies of the grand and baby grand pianos keep their sales transactions offline. Personal touch is key.

"Every piano sounds different to every player," Mr. Spellman said. "So far the Web site has merely an educational tool that gives viewers information and helps with our branding. But the new search function is very helpful from a sales point of view. It helps connect possible buyers to dealers in their area."

For example, a buyer in rural Illinois can be given information about the Steinway models that the Chicago dealer has in stock. Each city has only one dealer so as to avoid cannibalization.

In recent years the firm has added two lines of upright pianos, the Boston and the Essex, which are sold at a lower price point and made overseas in Japan and China.

Also available online is information on other piano models, technical specs, showroom details, a dealer locator, artists performing on Steinway instruments, competitions, music and interviews and even a link to Apple's iTunes online music store.

In the future it may be possible for consumers to add a Boston Steinway to the shopping cart at Steinway.com. And the site may be used as a revenue source by selling tickets to concerts and performances for classical and popular music. The new strategy would promote concerts and festivals to the Steinway audience.

For a piano maker whose endorsements through the years include Richard Wagner, Igor Stravinsky, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Gustav Mahler, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington, it seems a natural vehicle for music in the 21st century.

But the past matters as much to Steinway as the present, even in marketing. Consider the contest organized in 2003 for the company's 150th anniversary. The goal was to find the oldest Steinway.

"A pair of little old ladies in Texas had the oldest one, from around the time that the factory opened in New York," Mr. Spellman said. "The prize for the winning piano was a free restoration. Besides a little tuning, there was nothing we could do. The piano was in perfect condition."

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