How extraordinary is it for a small business to last 50 years?
    So extraordinary, in fact, that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t even track it. Their data peters out after 22 years, when 19.5% are still around. The remaining decades no doubt weed out a variety of additional candidates.
    Princess Bridals in Farmingdale Village, N.Y., is one of those rare success stories that has withstood the test of many decades, including economic cycles, the explosion of big-box bridal and internet selling, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. The 4,000-square-foot boutique, which hit its Golden Anniversary in May 2020, is best known for two things: being the oldest, original family owned and operated bridal salon in the tri-state area, and carrying the largest selection of Curvy Couture bridal gowns in women’s sizes 16-32 on Long Island.
    Oh, and did we mention it’s owned by a strong-minded, 90-year-old Italian who has a “sink or swim” method of training employees and a deep-seated love for what she does?
    “Bridal, bridal, bridal is my life’s passion!” says President Florence Remy, who, despite being semi-retired still comes into the store once or twice per week to observe and give input on everything from buying gowns to décor. “(The best part) is seeing the bride smile and sometimes cry when she found the perfect dress. . . we’re just a big Princess Bridals family!”

Humble Roots
    Like many boutiques, Princess Bridals was born from both a practical need and entrepreneurial spark.
    “My daughter, Lorraine, wanted to get married and I wanted to pay wholesale pricing, not retail,” says Remy matter-of-factly.
    So she searched in Manhattan and bought some designers such as Bianchi, Carmi Couture and Charmonte. From this, Princess Bridals was born.
    It wasn’t the first time Remy had ventured into business. She and her husband, George, had owned a small engine repair shop; sold lawn mowers and tractors in the summertime; and fixed snow blowers during winter. They even sold Christmas trees and wreaths for the holidays, roasting chestnuts on a cast iron pot belly stove and putting them in their pockets to keep warm in the frigid New York air.
    Princess Bridals, however, was different: Remy started this business out of the comfort of her living room in 1970 with two dress racks, maybe a dozen bridal gowns and a French Victorian changing screen with hand-carved top and red velvet fabric (which she still has). She spaced out the hangers/dresses a few inches apart so it looked like she had a lot and immersed herself in designing and creating all kinds of things.
    “I don’t know how to do alterations, however I can engineer the layout of the gown design and customize it,” she says.
    The business grew, and a couple of years later, she moved from her living room into an 800-square-foot shop in nearby Hicksville. A few years after that, she moved again, this time into a 3,000-square-foot building across the street. Princess Bridals stayed there for nearly 30 years before moving yet a third time in 2000 to its current 4,000-square-foot location in Farmingdale (about 15 minutes away).
    Back in the early days, in 1975, the shop was open from 11am-9pm five days a week, and Remy would stay until after midnight creating face-framer headpieces, veils with extra lace from alterations, even derby bridesmaids’ hats. There was no internet, only magazines such as Brides, Modern Bride and Bridal Guide, and she learned early on to advertise in them.
    “Brides would come in with binders of different styles; the key for me and some success is I’d show them just three bridal gowns from their pictures – just three! – and they’d wind up buying one,” she says. “Not today’s bride; it’s more like have to shop 10-20. We even had a bride who tried on 80 gowns back in 2010 and couldn’t find something she liked! So we have it custom-made. Done!”
    Princess Bridals’ old showroom had black-and-white tiles (a la Westminster Abby) and mauve chairs from the 80s, and those mannequins with the painted-on makeup and skinny fingers.
    Today’s version, since Remy’s grandson took over the merchandising and business end, features up-to-date gorgeous black velvet mannequins and new hardwood floors throughout the building. As well there is Carrera marble in the “sparkle” room, which consists of belts and veils. These visual touches help draw customers in.
    “Everyone loves our crystals and chandeliers and sparkles. . . it’s a major wow factor!” she says.

Secrets to Success
    Beyond its gorgeous décor, Princess Bridals thrives for two primary reasons: it’s a true family atmosphere that provides amazing customer service.
    After Remy opened the boutique, her daughter Lorraine started working there in 1974. She and Remy did the ordering together, going on trips into the city. Sadly, Lorraine passed away in March 2012 at the young age of 57.
    Her son (Remy’s grandson), Charles M. Prokop, Jr., however, keeps the family tradition alive. He originally started working at the store right out of high school, doing computer work and inventory. After attending Hofstra University on Long Island for Business and Marketing, he took on a larger role, creating ads and eventually buying gowns at market. Today, Prokop Jr., runs the store for Remy and is branded vice president of merchandising/marketing/bridal designer. They do a custom gown collection called “Ava Lorraine” after Remy’s daughter.
    Their staff, too, is like an extension of family. Salespeople stay an average of 5-20 years; currently the youngest veteran employee has 12 years in the alteration department. Two seamstresses, Lena and Pietra, started working at Princess Bridals in 1984 and both just recently retired. “We treat everyone here like family and that’s why they stay so long,” Remy says. “I have a heart of gold toward my staff and we pay OK too.”
    Compensation involves an hourly rate and, for certain trunk shows or events, extra incentives. As for training? Remy’s method is simple.
    “Honestly, throw them into the sales floor after a day or two then see who sinks or swims,” she says. “The cream always rises to the top!”
    All Princess Bridals stylists are highly skilled at sizing up the bride’s silhouette and picking a dress that flatters her body type. The bride is never treated like a number. Rather, the consultant follows her through the entire process, making sure all is going well until the very end.
    “We joke sometimes (that) we are with them for sometimes more than 10 months from order date to fittings/wedding date, and it’s longer than having a child,” she says.
    And the little touches matter too: Prokop, Jr. came up with the idea to wire the building’s sound system to stop the radio when brides say yes. It starts playing “We’re Going to the Chapel” by the Dixie Cups; the bride and her family often start crying. Then comes the champagne.
    While online sales aren’t part of this boutique’s niche, its website does offer discontinued sample gowns. About 60 percent of the time, however, brides’ “yeses” are said to gowns from the popular Curvy Couture selection, which runs sizes 16 and up and features its own private area.
    “Brides love it because they have their own dressing room, they’re away from the smaller girls who are trying on, and they can actually get into a dress and zip it up,” she says. “They fall in love because everybody else has such small sizes and they don’t cater to plus-size women.”

The COVID-19 Experience
    As with most boutiques, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a major disruption for Princess Bridals’ operations, forcing them to close on March 22, 2020 for three months.
    “I get nervous and start climbing the walls at home when we close for the week of Christmas and some other major holidays, so nearly three months was nail-biting!” Remy recalls.
    Nonetheless, the store immediately pivoted to an alternate model, setting up virtual appointments and Facetime with potential brides. Brides got 45 minutes to consult with a stylist, after which the stylist would call back with 4-6 handpicked dress choices displayed on mannequins. The bride could either have gowns of interest sent to her or pick them up curbside to try on for 24 hours after leaving a small deposit. Once the bride returned the gowns the next day, the boutique would order the dress of her dreams.
    And while virtual appointments were helpful for reaching brides, they were less successful in translating to sales.
   “It was very difficult for brides to actually purchase because you can’t buy a garment for your most important day without trying it on; they still want to come in, touch and feel, and have that princess experience,” she says.
    In fact, virtual appointments only closed about 50 percent of the time, in comparison to a much higher rate for in-person visits. Remy attributes this discrepancy in part to the bride being able to see the store’s gorgeous décor, but mostly to her consultants.
    “Nine out of ten purchase because of their expertise,” she says. “They basically size up the customer’s body type and pull dresses that fit well. Most importantly, they really listen. . . It makes a huge difference!”
    Fortunately, on June 10, Princess Bridals got the green light to resume in-person appointments.
    The boutique took every precaution, installing plexiglass at the desk, donning masks and gloves, and sanitizing before and after every appointment, including spraying down the gowns (sanitation after every try-on will likely remain a long-term protocol). But most of all, they try to make it fun.
    When brides come in, they’re invited to visit the “sani” bar. . . with hand sanitizer. Little things like this have gone a long way toward keeping the atmosphere light.
    “My staff have been excellent during this whole process,” Remy says.
    Nonetheless, despite the enthusiasm customers’ return has been slow and cautious. The silver lining, Remy notes, is that brides also appear more considerate of her store’s time as well as more aware. For the most part, they don’t want to shop all over and many buy the first time out - after a good Princess experience, of course!
    “Be strong and patient; the brides will return!” she advises. “Our hashtag is #LoveIsNeverCanceled. Business will come back; it’ll take time but you have to be patient and keep giving excellent, excellent customer service because that’s what will make you succeed.”

A Golden Lining
    Princess Bridals’ 50th anniversary milestone was in May 2020. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the boutique had to postpone its celebration until next year.
    “Just like so many brides are doing, we feel their pain,” says Remy, who instead gathered a small group of employees in the store to celebrate – socially distanced and on a reduced scale, of course – a combination of her 90th birthday and the boutique’s 50th anniversary, which fell in the same general timeframe.
    When the pandemic clears, they plan to officially recognize their 50th anniversary in 2021. This will involve renting a limo to take employees and guests to a small winery in Sherman, Conn. As well, they intend to expand the store.
    “What better way to celebrate 50 years but by adding a second location to help brides find their princess gown?” Remy says.
    In the meantime, they’ll concentrate on sprucing up the current boutique, adding more mannequins and installing large-screen TVs to showcase videos of their collections and fashion shows. Their approach toward customers, however won’t change:
    “Be patient with these brides today; it’s a different world with millennial buyers and a younger audience,” Remy advises. “If you offer excellent customer service and your staff is trained well (try my sink-or-swim method!) you will succeed like us to 50 years and beyond!”

 – Contributors to this story: Charles M. Prokop, Jr.