Specialised espresso machines are still very much a niche market. While mainstream places like Williams-Sonoma and others sometimes sell tricked out machines like Silvias or Elektra Micro Casas, by and large, your best choice for purchasing a quality espresso machine will be an online merchant.
There are online vendors out there who have nearly a decade of experience (and in some cases, much more) in customer service and espresso knowledge who will not only give you full service before the sale, but great service after the sale too. However, that's not just limited to vendors who have been around the block a few times - there are plenty of new kids on the block who really want your business and are using their expertise - either newly found or established in other avenues - to make you a happy customer.
Here are some tips and tricks on how to seek these folks out, what to expect, what's expected of you as a consumer, and a bit about how the industry for specialised espresso machines really works.
Your responsibilities as a consumer
I see a trend in life, in the emails I get, in our forums, and sometimes, even in myself - people will go out of their way to save a nickel. I've done it. I can remember spending two hours to drive someplace to save about 10% off my grocery bill. Ridiculous! Then again, maybe not.
Saving money is a good thing. But I tend to balance a lot of long term things into "saving money" these days. In the past, I used to get burned up when I'd buy something - say a memory card for $100 - then six months later, I'd see the same memory card for $50...if I mailed away for it...and if I waited another six months (plus two more weeks for shipping) to get it.
But being upset about that is ridiculous. For me, the time and effort involved are just as important as the dollars. I'd rather spend $100 on groceries and be home in five minutes, than spend $75 on the same groceries with a one hour round trip, the hassle of packing my own bags, and the frustration of dealing with long lines.
I know of far too many cases where a consumer takes up hours of a quality, service-oriented vendor's time - on the phone (on the vendor's dime too!), via email, what have you, seeking out the best product for their budget and requirements, only to go to another bare bones vendor who may be selling the machine for $10 less or offering a few more freebies.
There's so many things wrong with this.
First, there are a lot of vendors of espresso machines based in the US and around the world. Many of those with the best selection are found online. And many, including pretty much all of the companies advertising on CoffeeGeek, are renowned for their service behind the sale. (We vet our advertisers, and have barred questionable ones in the past.) Many of them will happily walk you through purchase choices, often putting together a specific package that suits your needs. They will hold your hand. And they do so because they know (or at least hope) that if they do a good job with you this time around, if you're in the "fanatic" class, you'll come back.
This also means that after the sale, they're most likely going to be very accommodating, or at the very least understanding, should anything go wrong with your product.
Second, you are making use of their time - valuable time and experience - to help make your purchase decision. So I not-so-humbly say that your primary responsibility as a consumer is to show loyalty to a vendor if you make use of their time and expertise.
As a consumer working with a vendor to achieve a satisfactory purchase experience, other things could be viewed as a responsibility. If you had a great experience and are very satisfied, why not tell the world about it? In a review on CoffeeGeek, there's a field to fill out called "buyer experience". Here's where you can go into detail about the vendor and what they did to help you out. Don't be shy - gush if the experience was great! Also talk up the vendor in an objective way in our forums when other people post questions about finding a good vendor.
If your experience wasn't so good, we also encourage you to talk about it on CoffeeGeek, both in the forums and in the reviews. But your responsibility here is to, at the very least, establish a dialogue with the vendor first and allow them the opportunity to rectify any mistakes or problems. These folks are human beings, many of whom are just running a small business that struggles to survive, and off-the-cuff negative commentary about a misunderstanding or miscommunication serves no one any good. We really place great value in maintaining CoffeeGeek's atmosphere of objectivity and fairness and ask you to be fair to the vendor if you have problems.
If problems still persist after trying to establish dialogue, after giving the vendor your side of the story, and after giving them the chance to rectify things, then by all means, let other consumers know about it.
Things to look for in a vendor
Buying products online is risky. It goes against our nature to buy something for a grand or more sight unseen, even though we've been doing this now for ten years or more on the Internet.
One of the many resources CoffeeGeek offers is the ability to find out more about online vendors. Using our search feature on the front page for a vendor name will turn up dozens of mentions in articles, reviews, and other parts of the website. By visiting these specific review pages, you can get quick snapshots of how a vendor was perceived by that particular customer writing the review.
Also in our forums, vendors are frequently mentioned and endorsed (and sometimes panned). Your first avenue should be spending a little time surfing CoffeeGeek with a list of three, four, or more vendor names and seeing what other people have to say. You'll also be able to easily find vendors who support this community as an advertiser by visiting our Active Advertisers page, if that kind of thing is important to you. (It sure is to us - their support is what brings this resource to you - so make sure you tell them you appreciate their sponsorship of CoffeeGeek when you buy from them!)
Good thing: education
There's other ways to scope out a good online vendor. I'm a particular fan of vendor sites that offer a lot of unbiased education about products. This requires a bit of reading between the lines. But if, while surfing the educational sections of a vendor's website, you find that they focus on the topic - for example, how to make espresso - while keeping cross promotional things to a minimum (like linking constantly to the products they sell), you will know you have discovered a good vendor who genuinely cares about this industry, promoting good coffee, and educating the public.
Another thing I especially like are videos. There's an increasing number of "how to use this product" videos being produced by some vendors, and those are good; but I'd like to see more general education videos. If you search long and hard enough, you'll see these starting to crop up. This is a sign of a great vendor who cares about you having quality coffee - no matter what machine or grinder you're using.
Bad thing: negative advertising
On the flipside, one thing I'm not a fan of is any kind of negative advertising on a vendor site. I just do not like it when a vendor talks up one product while panning another product that they just happen not to carry. As a consumer, and as someone who's interested in learning about and appreciating good coffee, you don't need to hear trash talk that, in many cases, arises out of ulterior motives (such as in case of vendors that cannot buy the product they are criticizing due to exclusive contracts).
Even worse are vendors who leave Google-found pages for products they don't even sell. But I'll get more into that below.
Good thing: objective reviews
More and more online vendors of espresso machines are featuring something we pioneered here at CoffeeGeek: consumer reviews of the products they sell. I like this a lot, but what I don't like are padded or fluffed reviews. Some sites post reviews pretty much unfiltered. A good example of this is Amazon - while they do vet all posted consumer reviews, they do so mainly for language and content - not for something negative or positive.
Some vendor websites allow for truly unfiltered reviews - good and bad. I leave it to you to discern which sites follow this practise. Visit vendor sites and read the reviews posted by consumers. If there is objective commentary that includes positives and negatives about the products, including some reviews that are just totally unsatisfied, I think major kudos is due to the vendor for having the guts to post them. Personally, my trust level with that vendor would go through the roof.
Bad thing: fluff reviews
In contrast to the above, there are, unfortunately, some websites that have consumer reviews that are fully vetted (pre-approved) before posting. At the least, they edit out some negative comments, and at worst, they don't post negative comments at all. When I go to a vendor website and read nothing but glowing consumer reviews, I have concerns. No matter how great a product you have, there's going to be problems. There's going to be days when the customer service rep has a bad day. There's going to be cases of a machine not functioning as advertised. If a vendor completely exorcises this kind of content from their consumer reviews, they cannot be considered objective and do not present you, the consumer, a fair view of those products.
Bad thing: MAP standards
A dirty little secret about the specialised espresso machine industry is something called "minimum advertised price" (MAP). This practise is questionably "legal" (it may seem illegal, but I'll explain below why it isn't), but still it makes things kind of ugly from a consumer standpoint. Basically, just about every importer and distributor of European made equipment sets a minimum advertised price for their product. This is why almost every vendor carrying the Rancilio Silvia sells it for the same price - they show a "list" price (the MSRP, or Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price) and a "sale" price (which is usually the importer-enforced MAP).
This system exists for most specialised products on the market - not just espresso equipment. Sony is notorious for setting a MAP standard for their products, as is Apple, and they come down very hard on vendors who advertise the products for less. MAP is vendor, distributor, importer, and manufacturer friendly. MAP isn't consumer friendly in most cases (save one - it does help to provide a certain level of service because the vendor can afford to deliver that service, thanks to decent-to-healthy margins).
Good thing: getting around the MAP
I said above that MAP pricing was technically legal, even though price fixing in the US is definitely illegal. How is it legal? Because thereís ways to get around MAP - itís the minimum advertised price; not necessarily the minimum price a vendor has to sell it at.
There is a caveat: don't expect every vendor to do this. Sometimes the margins are tiny on certain machines.
With that out of the way, the margins on most specialised espresso machines generally allow for a bit of flexibility on a vendor's part. Typically, the more expensive the machine, the greater the difference between the price the vendor pays vs the price they charge you. They can never advertise this, nor even state this on their websites, but many vendors will do a "package" deal, cutting 5%, 10% or more off the purchase price for an espresso machine / grinder combo. The catch is...well, you.
First, you have to call and talk to someone on the phone. You won't get discounts over a website or via email in most cases.
Second, don't expect a huge discount. If you're buying a $500 package, don't expect $100 off, just because you phoned in the order. But if you're ordering $2,000 worth of equipment, getting $50, $100 or even more off the package isn't an unreasonable thing to ask for.
Third - here's the real tip - a vendor is more likely to give you a discount if you are doing several things: a) you're being clear that you won't be publicizing the discount in any way; b) you wonít be going to his or her competitors spewing the price you were offered; c) the vendor gets the sense that you're not going to require a ton of hand holding down the road (or going to be taking up 3 hours of their time on the phone just to get $50 off); and d) you intimate (and follow through) that you'll be a good word of mouth advertiser for the company. In other words, you'll show your appreciation for being given a deal.
Fourth, the more you spend, the more you can expect to negotiate off the MAP price, in most cases. Some machines have much lower margins than others - super automatics, for example. But super high priced items may be sitting on the vendor's stock shelf for some time, and they'll be happy to lop 20% off the price just to ship it out and clear their inventory. This is where a short but insightful phone call by you can find hidden deals.
Fifth, pretty much every vendor of specialised espresso machines has "open box" and "slightly used' machines in stock that you can often pick up for 25% or more off the MAP price. Don't be afraid to ask. One thing that seems to work often is calling up a vendor with your full budget price for grinder and machine, and asking them, "What have you got, new, used, open box, or package price that you can offer me for that price?" This lets them offer you a range of products, including good quality products collecting dust that they might be more than happy to get rid of, and you in turn can go do some research on these products before calling them back to finalise the deal.
Good / Bad thing: playing one vendor off another
I am not a fan of playing one vendor off another, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, at least tactfully. But bear the following in mind:
- The industry is cut throat. There's a lot in the way of back room politics and exclusive distributor / importer deals going on, something that's actually fairly common for a specialised industry that is still trying to make the transition from commercial equipment sales to consumer sales. This means that something you, as a consumer, may say to vendor A about a deal that vendor B offered you will get back to the importer as a complaint, and vendor B could hypothetically be "cut off" by the importer. This is a bad thing all around because it makes all vendors less willing to offer unadvertised deals below the MAP pricing.
- If you get a great package deal from vendor A, it's pretty cheesy to call up vendor B and not only disclose this private deal price, but expect vendor B to do even better. If vendor A gave you a good sense of service, knowledge, and a great price, your search should be ended at that point.
- When calling several vendors, be honest with them - always. Tell each vendor you're considering another vendor, but are shopping around for the best combination of price and service. Be positive; avoid negative comments about other vendors. Being honest doesn't mean disclosing everything vendor A said to you, to vendor B. And it doesnít mean saying the prices vendor A gave you either. Get both prices, then make your mind up.
- Personally, a warning sign for me is when a vendor trash talks other vendors. As I have mentioned before, this industry is cut throat at times, and it really doesn't have to be. There's plenty of room for all the current players and more in the future. This is a growing industry with growing consumer demand. If, when engaging a vendor about service and knowledge, they bring up other vendors and talk about their negatives or lack of service, I think that's bad - I'd much rather just hear about how the vendor I'm talking to is going to do good. I don't need their opinion of other companies.
Bad thing: tricky practises
The most important thing for me, as a consumer myself, is a company I can trust. Trust is established a lot of ways, but for me, most of the time it's something that develops from hearing about the company, reading about the products they sell, and how they conduct themselves as a business.
One of the sneakiest things I've seen recently is the practise of "Google trapping". It's the practise of leaving web pages up for products they no longer sell or creating pages on their website for products they've never sold. These pages are designed exclusively for search engines - you'll rarely find a easy to spot link to them on the vendor's website (though sometimes you will). Typically, these pages either just autodirect to another product page or a main information page, but worst of all, these pages contain nothing but trash talk about the products.
This is a despicable practise, I'm not afraid to say. And for me personally, it erodes major trust in that company.
I'm surfing a major minefield here by bringing these things up, so I'd best stop here, although I do encourage readers to post - in general terms, don't single out any one company - any "bad practises" they've observed on vendor websites - post your comments to the forum thread for this guide.