Holding on to tradition – Mike Tricou, Royal Furniture

In the early 1980s, white flight from downtown and Mid City to the suburbs accelerated. Royal Furniture owner Mike Tricou saw the trend and recognized the alarming demographic shift in his customer base. But while many retailers moved to the seemingly greener pastures farther east—or at least opened second locations there—Tricou stayed put.

Some 30 years later, Tricou is still doing business from the inner-city building on North 19th Street that his father bought when he opened Royal Furniture in 1946. In many ways, Tricou is also doing business as it was done, if not 68 years ago, then at least circa 1976, which is when he began running the store.

“We’re a dinosaur in a way,” Tricou admits. “We carry our own accounts. We own our own building. We don’t go on Facebook. We have a website, but I don’t keep up with modern media. I’m kind of old-school.”

Doing business the old-fashioned way is not without risk, and Tricou feels the pressure every day. Take the store’s financing policy. Royal still floats its own credit, which is almost unheard-of in an era of huge national financing companies. But it can be a problem when customers don’t make a down payment on their purchases, because even if Royal does $1 million worth of business in, say, a quarter, Tricou won’t necessarily have the cash on hand to pay the 9% sales tax.

And consider the store’s size. With its 30,000 square feet of showroom space and 30,000 square feet of warehouse, Royal would have been large by retail standards as recently as 15 years ago. Today, however, big-box stores with hundreds of outlets around the country lease buildings with 40,000 and 50,000 square feet of floor space, enabling them to display more merchandise, which they can move to another location if it doesn’t sell.

Then there’s the fact that Tricou doesn’t downsize if he doesn’t have to, even when cost-cutting is a necessity. His 22 employees are like family, and he believes in taking care of them. When times are tough, he’ll scale back their hours—and he also had to drop his benefits package—but he won’t lay them off.

“The retail business is tough, and when you are a family-owned business you basically live the business,” he says. “You work six or six-and-a-half days a week. You come in early, stay late and your employees get paid before you.”

Tricou does not like to complain. He loves his business. It’s apparent from the memorabilia lining the walls and desktop space in his wood-paneled office. It’s there in the local TV commercials in which he stars. He is proud of his merchandise, which, he notes, includes the same lines his competitors carry in their shiny new stores out on Perkins Road or Siegen Lane.

The store is holding its own, too. Revenues are in the $3 million range annually, inching up or down 1% to 2% for the past few years. That might be OK at this stage in Tricou’s career. The problem is that the cost of doing business is continuing to increase between 7% and 12% annually due to higher gas prices, insurance, taxes and inventory. If minimum wage goes up, as many are predicting, Tricou is not sure what he’ll do.

“My employees are all above minimum wage right now,” he says. “But if minimum wage goes up, nobody wants to be classified as making minimum wage, so overnight I am going to have to give all my employees a raise. And then you throw in Social Security and unemployment. … That’s what people don’t understand about this.”

Like many small business owners, Tricou feels misunderstood. He perceives himself to be operating on an uneven playing field, where the odds are increasingly stacked in favor of the chains and big-box stores that have advantages in economies of scale and in knowing how to skirt costly and oppressive federal regulations.

Tricou thought many times over the years about moving and following his more affluent customers out to the burbs. But his building was already paid for, and the overhead was low. Sometimes he would put pencil to paper and try to figure out how to make it happen.

“But then the AC would go out or you’d have to fix a truck,” he says. “There was always something that wasn’t in the budget that you have to pay for somehow. Every time I’d think I want to move or whatever, there wasn’t enough.”

Tricou knows other furniture retailers around the state like himself and keeps in close contact with them. They, better than anyone, understand the realities of running a business like his. They talk amongst themselves about how five years from now there will be fewer of them still in operation. It makes him sad, but he has no regrets.

“This store has given me and many others a good living. I’m very thankful for it,” he says. “I’ve met some good people. If I were to shut this place down, I wouldn’t know where to go. If you’ve been selling widgets for 40 years, what else do you do?”

Tricou’s 22 employees are like family, and he believes in taking care of them. When times are tough he’ll scale back their hours, and he also had to drop his benefits package, but he won’t lay them off.

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