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Belk unveils its biggest store

The chain's revamped Web site aims at a slice of the retail business resisting the slowdown.

By Jen Aronoff
jaronoff@charlotteobserver.com

For years, most shoppers reached Belk stores by car and by foot.

Now, all it takes is a mouse – a change that catapults the Charlotte-based chain into a group of department stores vying for consumer dollars by offering a broad selection of clothes, shoes, housewares and beauty products online.

The new Belk.com was launched last month, replacing an outmoded site that included gift registries and a limited range of home goods.

Since then, the company has worked to build buzz about its new Internet home, placing ads on an array of sites, running online-only contests and integrating mentions of Belk.com into printed and other promotional materials. That's only the start, Belk officials say.

“It will be our biggest store,” spokesman Steve Pernotto said. “We didn't see it as bricks and mortar – we saw it as an adjunct.”

That's important, because as more shoppers head online, department stores need to meet them there, said Larry Joseloff, vice president of content at Shop.org, the online arm of the National Retail Federation, an industry group.

Unlike in the past, when department stores' Web businesses were essentially separate from the in-store experience, retailers have more recently worked to link the two and become consistent, driving sales no matter where they come from, Joseloff said.

“If you don't have a robust Web site, you're really losing out to your competitors who do, and you're taking a tool away from your potential customers to find the merchandise they're looking for,” he said. “People will go to Google and search for a product, and if you're not there, you're going to lose.”

Even with the economy slumping, e-commerce has not been hit as hard as other retail segments, Joseloff said, in part because it's not as affected by gas prices and can shift to adapt to consumer tastes more quickly than regular stores.

Indeed, even as the economy headed down, department store Web sites received more traffic in August 2008 – the most recent month for which data is available – than in the same month the previous year, according to the Nielsen Company.

By allowing customers to browse without coming into the store – a habit that has grown as more and more households get broadband access – Web sites complement and reinforce traditional locations. Sites such as Belk's allow customers to return online orders to bricks-and-mortar stores, for instance, which further deepens the connection.

Competition

Belk's competitors are working to capitalize on that, too.

Dillard's, Macy's, J.C. Penney and Nordstrom all said their Web traffic has grown dramatically. The chains' sites build brand awareness and serve as vibrant stores of their own.

J.C. Penney's 10-year-old JCP.com offers twice as much stock as even the chain's largest stores, spokeswoman Kate Parkhouse noted, with seasonal items such as coats and bathing suits and a range of baby and toddler merchandise they do not have room for in stores. The site had sales of $1.5 billion, or 7.5 percent of the chain's total, last year.

“At the end of the day, if we have what a customer is looking for, then obviously we've made their day, and that's what's going to make a loyal customer,” she said.

Nordstrom launched its site in 1993. “We looked at this early on as an opportunity to offer customers the best service that we can,” spokeswoman Brooke White said. “Part of offering great service is serving them anywhere, anytime they want to be served.”

Macy's recently began selling furniture and mattresses online, and now stocks about 50,000 items on its site, spokeswoman Jean Coggan said. J.C. Penney's site includes a similar number.

Belk.com's stock is somewhat lower, with an assortment similar to a major mall store, but not as large as that at its flagship SouthPark location.

Of those sites, J.C. Penney's JCP.com received the most visitors, with an estimated 11.7million in August. Macy's, Nordstrom and Dillard's all also received more than 1 million visitors. By contrast, about 341,000 people visited Belk.com in August.

Belk had lagged

Belk has had at least a basic Web site for at least 12 years, but fell behind as other retailers began offering at least a store's worth of merchandise online.

The company knew it needed to improve its Web site well before work began on the new Belk.com, but other priorities took precedence, Pernotto said. The company had gone through a leadership transition and two acquisitions, and during that time didn't devote the resources necessary to bring the site up to date, he said.

Finally, in late 2007, Belk hired retail e-commerce veteran Steve Duchelle, who helped build and run the first sales-enabled Circuit City site and had also run the Web business for RadioShack and the Bombay Company.

Coming in, Duchelle said, he realized Belk had a lot of potential to grow its business online, expanding its reach well beyond its 16-store footprint.

Through the year, teams stretching across departments and outside Belk headquarters on Tyvola Road worked to develop the site. In addition to a battery of testing, the company set up a fulfillment center to handle the site's orders, renting a 125,000-square-foot space in the Coliseum area. The process also brought 50 to 60 new jobs.

The goal, Duchelle said, was to create a shopping experience that was as close to coming to the store as possible, yet with online-only features customers expect, too. Among them: Customer ratings and reviews, and the capability to see different colors of a product and zoom in to examine details.

Busy on weekdays

Duchelle said the company is pleased with the reception to the site so far. The traffic patterns have proven interesting, too: In stores, a majority of sales are on the weekend. On the Web site, weekdays are busier, especially between the hours of noon and 2 p.m.

“Hopefully, we're improving the overall shopping environment for the Belk customer,” Duchelle said. “Not everyone's going to make a purchase online, but they're going to research and learn and… get excited about our products.”

The company sees the new site as a profitable and important part of its business, Pernotto said. But Duchelle noted that there's still plenty to be done.

Belk is still surveying consumers about its new site online and in person. The company also plans to introduce new features in response to customer requests, with in-store pick-up under consideration, Duchelle said.

But if for any reason you miss that old site, well – some constants remain. That's right: The new site has a gift registry, too.

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