In some ways, Belk department store is the last of a dying breed — and not just because it is a department store in the United States in the year 2017. Small and regional — outside of the Southeastern United States, most people haven’t heard of it.
But Belk may have something to teach its more nationalized equivalents, because it is doing something that its counterparts nationwide, by and large, are not. It’s growing.
About a year and a half after the chain was sold off to a private equity group, Charlotte-based Belk is opening up new stores, though less well-performing ones are being shuttered. It’s even capitalizing on the department store drain that is ongoing. In Kentucky right now, Belk is building out a location in what was a Macy’s.
So, what is Belk selling well enough, such that consumers are still buying it in store? Said simply, modern Southern style and an an enhanced shopping experience.
The more complex answer, noted CEO Lisa Harper, involves being both conservative and innovative at the same time. In the rush to build the next great thing, she noted, it is easy to make the standard mistake of tossing the baby out with the bathwater and actually start undermining parts of the consumer experience that the consumer actually liked.
“We’re going to take that brand message and the legacy the Belks have built and continue building on it. We’re not replacing it,” Harper noted.
Lisa Harper is a Belk long-timer in the most literal sense. She started working at the company as a teenager as a “floater” — a retail clerk who bounces between departments. She said she fondly remembers the run on velour tracksuits that were all the rage at the time.
And this, she noted, transitions to how Belk is transitioning to the new retail environment — but focusing on what the customer actually is entering the store for and what experience they really want to have.
Which is likely why, when other brands talk about how technical and modern they’ve gotten — with mobile payments, with beacons, with analytics that can predict what a customer will want to buy before a customer has even so much laid eyes on it — Belk is almost refreshingly retrograde with its insistence on a focus on its long-time three key areas.
Modern. Southern. Style.
But that, Harper noted, is because that is what Belk offers in a sea of department stores nationwide (albeit one that is getting shallower by the day). And when it thinks about how it is moving the brand forward, that style focus is staying at the forefront.
This has been behind Belk’s big upgrade and redesign of its mechanizing structure that is breaking down the walls between the departments in the department store. The concept: Consumers aren’t buying goods in a vacuum, and it is an actual service to the customer to merchandize in a way that puts them in touch with the interconnectedness of purchasing. The goods are more than good that way, Harper noted; they work together to tell the user a story.
Most brands can’t do exactly what Belk has done. There can only be one in the modern, southern style game, and Belk more or less owns that market.
But there is something to be said for thinking so inside of the box in retail that it has managed to actually become out of the box. Though many players in the game talk about building a better experience, Belk’s CEO seems uniquely in tune with the idea that that experience is still fundamentally connected to what the consumer is there to buy. Creating a story for them to take part in — and allowing them to build to a look or feel — is sticky.
The proof is in the expansion numbers.