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Red Barron business considers consolidation, move

October 13, 2007|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

WILLIAMSPORT ? A lot has changed in the two years since Randy and Scott Barron moved their decades-old furniture store six blocks to improve business.

Just a month after the new Red Barron furniture and bedding store opened at 415 S. Conococheague St., Scott, who was 48, suffered a heart attack and died.

In the next month, the economy began to falter and sales fell.

And several months later, Randy was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease that soon might put him in a wheelchair.

Now, the 25,990-square-foot former Nabisco cookie distribution center into which they moved the store is for sale. It is to be auctioned next month.

What happens next depends on whether his minimum price is met, company President Randy Barron said last week.

If it is, Barron said he will move the store across the street to join with the 15,000-square-foot flooring store he opened there five years ago, remodel it and nearly double its size.

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"And/or completely look for a whole new building in a completely different location," he added.

That, he said, might even include moving out of Williamsport, where his father, Emerson, moved his young business more than 30 years ago.

Emerson Barron, now 82, was a gunner in the Air Force during World War II. After the war, he got into the poultry business, trucking chickens to market for years. Then in 1973, he switched gears and opened a furniture store, trading on the Red Baron nickname of German World War I flying ace Manfred von Richthofen.

First located along U.S. 40 about four miles west of Hagerstown, the store moved in 1976 into the former Willcraft Hosiery factory in Williamsport, where it remained until this century.

Slipping sales



Five years ago, brothers Randy and Scott decided to buy a former shirt label-making plant at 400 S. Conococheague St. and move the carpeting and flooring part of their store there. That allowed them to expand greatly.

But therein began a problem. "The cross traffic" ? furniture customers who wandered over to the flooring department, and vice versa ? "seemed to become less and less," Barron said. Customers didn't want to drive the six blocks between the stores.

So it seemed like a good opportunity two years ago when the brothers bought the former Nabisco building. Practically across the street from the flooring store, fairly modern and large, it seemed right for the Red Barron furniture business.

But after the move, the problems began, Barron said. First came Scott's death. Then, the housing market began its long slide, which continues today.

With it, furniture sales began to slip as "so many people, strapped for a mortgage payment or a car payment, they just don't have the money" for furniture, he said. "...There's definitely fewer shoppers coming in."

For U.S. furniture makers and retailers, the other problem that has grown to "unbelievable" proportions is the furniture imports flooding American markets from China, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam, Barron said. Using cheap labor, the imports are less expensive than American-made furniture, forcing many domestic plants to close and slashing profits for others.

All but gone now are the days when Barron and his father would drive their big Red Barron tractor-trailers south to furniture factories "where we would meet with the owner and, one-on-one, reach a deal to buy furniture" to bring back, he said. Increasingly, the remaining factories are large and deals are done at a distance.

New challenges



To a large extent, what has sustained him, Barron said, is the "brown collar and some blue collar" market of the manual laborer and factory worker customers that Barron has long seen as his own.

In addition, the company's flooring business has stayed strong. Several area contractors, who otherwise would have been busy building new homes, have switched to renovation projects and stayed with Barron for supplies, he said.

Then, too, he said, there are his employees. Including himself, his daughter Misty, 22, who manages the furniture store, and his son Blake, 20, who does deliveries, there are 22 employees. Many have been with the company 20 years or more, Barron said.

Nonetheless, the company's business is not the five-store Tri-State empire, with $7 million in annual sales, that it was once. "Mismanagement" led to closing of all but the Williamsport stores and now, sales have fallen to the "$4 million range" overall, he said.

Then, about a year ago, while adjusting to the economic changes, Barron faced a new threat.

Doctors at Johns Hopkins diagnosed him with a rare combination of myasthenia gravis, polymyositis and cervical spine disease.

Not only has this resulted in heart damage, but "my brain waves are misfiring to different parts of my body," said Barron, who will be 55 next month.

He already has difficulty walking through his furniture store or climbing into his big trucks.

"At night, my hands cramp up real bad and I'll have trouble talking," he said. "I'm taking 40 pills a day."

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