Ralph Ritchie: The story of Ritchie’s Furniture in his own words
Published 9:00 am Monday, September 22, 2014
While speaking with Margo Bentley, one of the owners of Ritchie’s Furniture and Appliance, she provided the Elizabethton Star with a copy of a letter written in January 1991 by her father, Ralph X. Ritchie, who founded the business. Ralph Ritchie passed away in 1993, just two years after this letter was written. The letter was addressed to Mr. Monroe Fulmer with General Electric Appliances in Smyrna, Ga., and tells the history of the store in his own words, and also the story of some difficulties the store faced. The letter is reprinted below in its entirety.
Dear Mr. Fulmer:
I feel somewhat apologetic in writing you so soon after my recent letter. Yet, I am requesting your tolerance in reading this rather lengthy letter and giving consideration to its contents.
My love affair with General Electric has spanned many years. I will be 83 years old on the 14th of this month and I was impressed with our 4 cu. ft. General Electric refrigerator when we purchased it in 1931 at the age of 23.
Three years later, I realized that my future was not very bright at the plant where I was employed and I decided that I would like to venture into sales as a sideline with my employment at the rayon plant. I was able to get the dealership for a Johnson 12 volt generator which would generate 25 watts of power to two 6-volt batteries.
While peddling the generators, (after working full shifts at the plant) I discovered that I could sell a 6 volt operated radio. Ever mindful of the name of the product which I would like to represent, I contacted the Knoxville branch of the GE distributor. At that time, General Electric did not have a dealer in Elizabethton and quite beyond my hopes, I was allowed a dealership. For this I will always be grateful.
By 1936 I had convinced myself and the GE sales counselor that it was time to open a store. GE credit agreed to finance us. However, they did so with full recourse on our sales contracts and withheld 7% of the amount of the contracts. Within a year, we were permitted to become a full line GE Appliance dealer. I continued my employment at the plant. My wife worked full time at the store — I did house to house selling after work and on Saturdays — and we were able to build our capital.
This effort continued until I was drafted into the Army at the age of 36 in 1944. During my tour of Army duty, appliances were not readily available and there was always a waiting list for any allotted shipments. My wife was able to stock and sell furniture which enabled us to pay the rent until I was discharged on my 38th birthday in 1946.
The plant at which I had been employed was required to give servicemen a period of six months in which to decide if they wished to return to their job. This extension provided my wife and me the security of a grace period to determine if we could make a living by being in business. We have succeeded and have realized a steady growth since.
Ironically, the biggest obstacles to our success has been General Electric and GE Finance. After World War II, even before our waiting list on appliances had been honored, General Electric began to add another dealer to our town — most of the time two additional dealers. Elizabethton has only a population of 13,000 and we are only 8 miles from Johnson City which has a population of 50,000.
In the late 50’s, we realized the necessity of a promotion which would generate interest and get more floor traffic. We decided on a promotion which would give away a new car every 90 days. This was done by a drawing. We gave one ticket to each person entering the store. If they permitted us to show or demonstrate an item, we gave them two additional tickets and with each purchase, we gave them a ticket for each dollar of the purchase. We had to discontinue this promotion in 1961 when a new grocery chain started giving a car each month.
With the appointment of a GE dealer as our current competitor we renewed the type of promotion used in the 50’s. Now, we gave away an article each month with the same rules as with our previous promotion. GE’s participation has been confined to allowing us a major appliance for our annual August Anniversary Celebration and one in December. So far, we have paid for the other expenses for this promotion.
Our record with your company should prove that this type of promotion has been successful. Yet, I have been advised by Mr. Klonaris that your company has decided that you will no longer participate in a drawing for a GE appliance.
Having been in business for the past 54-1/2 years, I can understand the importance of enforcing rules.
We are not asking that this rule be changed. However, we wish that you could feel justified in bending the rules, thus enabling Mr. Klonaris to bend the rules. The exception could then be passed on to a dealer who is more than eighty years old and has sold GE products for at least 50 years.
I hope that I have thoroughly explained our problem.
Ralph X. Ritchie