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Belk is part of fabric of life in North Carolina’s small towns

Two women shop in a Belk-Tyler department store in 1964.
Two women shop in a Belk-Tyler department store in 1964. North Carolina Collection

The announcement last week that Belk would be sold to a private equity firm out of New York came just as many of the chain’s regulars were finishing up one of their annual retail rites: back-to-school shopping at the Belk store in their hometown.

Though company officials say no major changes are planned as a result of the sale, residents of small towns across the state, including a couple dozen in Eastern North Carolina, are considering what they would lose if Sycamore Partners closes stores in places where Belk isn’t just the biggest full-service department store, but the only one.

“I’ve been thinking, what in the world would we do without that store?” Patsy Bowman said after a midweek shopping excursion with her sister, Sarah Mulcahy, to the Belk in Dunn.

When they were growing up on a farm in Harnett County, their mother took them to Belk each fall to shop for school clothes and shoes. Back then, the store was in a two-story building that occupied an entire block in downtown Dunn.

They came back when it was time for a winter coat, and again around Christmas, birthdays, Easter, or to buy fabric for the dresses their mother sewed for them to wear to church.

It would make me sad if it closed.

Sarah Mulcahy, Belk shopper in Dunn

When they had children of their own, Bowman and Mulcahy said, they relied on Belk in the same way. With their boys now grown, they still count on the store – which moved to a strip shopping center in the early 1990s – for special-occasion purchases such as wedding or birthday gifts, or when they want a new dress. But once or twice a week, they go to Belk when they don’t need a thing except a place to spend a morning together, perusing the clearance racks.

“I think everybody here has fond memories of Belk’s,” said Bowman, who had just bought two cotton nightgowns and a vegetable-grilling basket at 60 percent off.

“It would make me sad if it closed,” said her sister.

Partnerships across state

The company has said there won’t be layoffs or store closures directly because of the deal, though Tim Belk, the chain’s CEO, told the Charlotte Observer there would be store openings, closings and expansions just as there have been in years past.

Retail analysts say large Belk stores in cities such as Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta and Dallas, which offer a greater variety of goods and higher-end brands, are important to the chain’s success. But most of its 66 stores in North Carolina are in smaller cities and towns more like Monroe, where William Henry Belk launched his company more than 125 years ago.

As William Henry Belk and his brother, John, expanded the company into the farming communities and mill towns across the South, they often established partnerships with local businessmen. Longtime customers recall shopping at Hudson-Belk in Raleigh, at Wilmington’s Belk-Beery, at Belk-Tyler in Greenville or Belk-Leggett in Roanoke Rapids. And while some of those stores closed as times and the company changed, there are still about 20 stores east of Raleigh.

The company consolidated all its stores under the sole Belk name by the late 1990s, buying out its partners in some cases and selling its share in others, then expanded by buying the Parisian and Proffitt’s chains. Charlotte-based Belk now has 296 stores in 16 states, which Sycamore Partners will buy in a deal worth about $3 billion.

At William Henry Belk’s insistence, from the start the stores were known for good customer service and for standing behind the merchandise they sold, sometimes even making exchanges on defective items that hadn’t been bought at Belk but were made by brands the company carried.

Larger Belk stores had cafeterias or snack bars, bargain basements, piece goods, bridal shops, hair salons, portrait studios and full-time seamstresses who could hem a dress or tailor a man’s suit.

Stores have changed under the direction of three generations of family management and in response to consumer demand, long ago eliminating fabric and sewing notions and cafeterias. Like other retailers, Belk offers online shopping and can ship to customers no matter where they live. Still, having a Belk store – even if it lacks some of the amenities of those in larger cities – remains a quality-of-life issue in many Southern towns, said Deidre Guion, an associate professor of marketing at N.C. Central University in Durham.

Part of town’s fabric

Guion grew up in Durham, has shopped Belk all her life and says, “They are more than just a retailer, if you will. In many ways, they become an anchor in that town: an anchor for economic activity, an anchor for social activity, an anchor for forming and strengthening relationships.”

In many towns, Belk’s only brick-and-mortar competition may be a discount retailer such as Walmart, Rose’s or Goody’s.

From rural areas, Guion said, shoppers might drive into town to pick up a wedding gift at Belk and stop at other stores while they’re out. Through employee contributions and the Belk Foundation, the company also engages in philanthropic work in the communities where its stores are located, Guion noted. And it’s a major employer, with 24,700 workers across its operations in 2014.

Guion believes in order to maximize profits, as Sycamore Partners will need to do, the new owners will have to close some stores, whether they pick individual low-performers or pull out of entire regions, she said.

If that happens, Guion said, “You can readily see that … there will be a void.”

Joanne Taylor would certainly feel it. She has shopped at Belk for as long as she can remember, while living in South Carolina, Virginia and now Dunn. She is a regular in her local store, but she also knows how to find most anything they sell at the stores in Raleigh, Smithfield and Garner.

“My husband doesn’t know this, but I spend so much money at Belk every year, I’m considered one of their premier customers,” she said, which entitles her to Belk Rewards, or what longtime customers still call Belk Bucks.

“I’ve probably got three out-of-date Belk coupons in my pocketbook right now,” Taylor said. “And you’d better believe, if I have a Belk Buck, I’m not going to let that expire. I’m going to go down to Belk’s and find something.”

Her first and only job

Nearly everything in Addie Stratton’s house in Roanoke Rapids came from Belk, she said, all bought with her employee discount. In September, Stratton will celebrate 62 years with the company, making her one of its longest continuously employed full-time workers.

The company gives her credit for the years she worked at Leggett, which became Belk-Leggett some years after Stratton went to work there. It’s the only job she has ever had.

She started in 1953, the year she graduated high school. She spent that summer working on her family’s farm, tending corn, soybeans, peanuts and a big garden. Come fall, she said, “I told my daddy that I was going to town to get me a job, because I was tired of baking my brains out in the sun.”

Leggett, which sat on a corner in Roanoke Rapids’ tiny downtown, was the first place she came to. She went in the front door, climbed the stairs to the office and talked to the manager. He asked her three questions, she said.

“Do you know anybody that works in this store?”

“What church do you go to?”

“How do you know you can sell?”

To the last question, Stratton said she answered, “I don’t know that I can sell, but I’m willing to try.”

She started the next morning, in the shoe department, earning $25 per week.

Turned out, she could sell. Over the years, through two store relocations and assignments to several different departments, Stratton has repeatedly been commended for being among the company’s top sellers. When she was in home goods, she said, she sold so many Croscill brand bedspreads, the company named a design after her.

Last year, she said, she moved more than $500,000 worth of goods.

“I’m just a born, natural seller,” said Stratton, who also met her husband at the store. “I always put God first and treat others the way I want to be treated.

“If you’re good to your customers, they will come back to you.”

Belk has been good to her, Stratton said, and though she’s now 80, she’s not ready to retire.

“I think it’s going to be a big change in January,” she said, when Johnny Belk, the chain’s chief operating officer, leaves the company. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” 

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

Belk at a glance

Based: Charlotte

Employees: 23,000

Stores: 296 in 16 states.

About the deal: Sycamore Partners will assume Belk debt, and Belk shareholders will receive $68 a share in cash for each share of Belk stock they own. The deal is worth about $3 billion. The company’s headquarters will stay in Charlotte, and Tim Belk will remain CEO. His brother Johnny Belk, the chief operating officer, will step down in January. The sale is expected to close in the fourth quarter this year.

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