The North Carolina-based department store stays focused on its customer base
By David Gill
This year marks the 125th anniversary in business for Belk Inc., the Southern-region department store chain.
The retailer was founded in 1888 by William Henry Belk, and is now headed by his grandsons—Tim, chairman and CEO; and John, president and chief operating officer. It’s a unique feat for any business to survive for that long and through that many generations of family ownership.
Belk has done it, according to merchandising executives in the company’s home department, by keeping its focus squarely on its target consumer.
That core customer is in her 40s, highly active and embraces key elements of the Southern lifestyle. “She likes bright, more vibrant colors,” said David Zant, executive vice president and general merchandise manager for home. “She loves to entertain and is into the outdoor component of living in the South.”
In Belk’s home department, much of this culture is reflected in the store’s tabletop area. Visits to two Belk locations near its headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., displayed how important tabletop is to the overall home story.
The retailer has nearly every large brand in tabletop, ranging from Villeroy & Boch to Lenox, Vietri (“big for us,” according to Zant), Royal Doulton and Vera Wang. Both stores are well in stock in their tabletop departments, and the displays combine dish walls with place settings on fixtures.
Reflecting the Southern love for entertaining, “tabletop is a major department for us,” Zant said. “For decades, Belk and tabletop went together in shoppers’ minds.”
Allied with this, both stores feature housewares as a tabletop adjacency. Again, the housewares departments in both stores offer a healthy selection of the well-known national brands, with fixtures devoted to each brand. The housewares section of the flagship Belk store in Charlotte, located at the South Park Mall, includes a large area devoted to Keurig products and a Nespresso area with a touch-screen video display.
Reflecting the vibrant colors Southern consumers like, the Belk store in Rock Hill, N.C. (also not far from the corporate headquarters, and a smaller-format store than the one in the South Park Mall), highlighted colorful cookware under the retailer’s Cooks Tools brand. It also had a presentation of KitchenAid Stand Mixers in their various colors.
Regarding the housewares area, Zant said, “Our internal mantra is that we want to exploit the kitchen. We feel this is very timely for us because, coming out of the recession, people weren’t eating out as much.”
The textiles area spotlights major national brands such as Revman, Ralph Lauren, Nautica and Peking Handicraft. It also includes the Biltmore private-label brand, which can be found on bed ensembles, sheet sets and bath rugs.
“Biltmore (named after the historic Vanderbilt estate located in Asheville, about 130 miles from Charlotte) is a key brand for us,” said Chad Stauffer, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for home. “It resonates with our target consumers. It’s an important part of our overall strategy that we carry brands that are important to shoppers.” Stauffer noted that the Rock Hill store has “a powerful Biltmore presentation.”
As with other retailers, both national and regional, Belk has been working on its omnichannel presence. David Staffieri, vice president of e-commerce merchandising and planning, said belk.com’s sales have increased by 50 percent over the past three or four years—and home has played a major role in the website’s success.
“A lot of our growth has been driven by home,” Staffieri said. “We have been marketing home very aggressively online, and we have had a lot of wins partnering with vendors on this.” The site has also extended Belk’s name and presence beyond its store locations.
“Twenty percent of our online sales comes from outside the 16 states where we are present,” Staffieri said. He also observed that Belk has been getting more national exposure through social media and on television. The retailer has been a sponsor on some episodes of the series “Project Runway.”
In terms of promotions, Belk runs pricing events frequently but will not promote in some areas. “Tabletop is an area where we don’t promote,” Stauffer said. “We do promotions for some towel and sheet programs. But our customer is one who wants to find new things at a fair price. We’re not out there for the treasure hunters.”
In its business practices, Belk has adopted the strategies followed by many family businesses. “We have a very strategic view,” Zant said. “Other companies have a short-term viewpoint, but we always look to the long term.” He credited Tim and John Belk for spearheading the company’s growth over the past 15 years, especially in store count, which—as of November—stood at 301.
Zant also credited Kathryn Bufano, president and chief merchandising officer for the past three years, with Belk’s efforts in merchandising and store presentation. “Kathy has taken us to a new level in merchandising,” he said. “She has great merchant skills. She knows all the levers to driving the business.”
Those levers have fueled Belk’s home area into an all-out destination for many home-product categories. “One of our advantages is that we are a full-service provider for the home,” Zant said. “We play to the lifestyle of our markets. And we want to be shoppable.”