In Charlotte, Belk is more than just a store

Belk Chairman and CEO Tim Belk, left, and Belk President and Chief Operating Officer Johnny Belk unveil the new Belk logo and store signage at Belk at SouthPark Mall in fall 2010. The new logo and signage were part of a $70 million re-branding campaign.
Belk Chairman and CEO Tim Belk, left, and Belk President and Chief Operating Officer Johnny Belk unveil the new Belk logo and store signage at Belk at SouthPark Mall in fall 2010. The new logo and signage were part of a $70 million re-branding campaign. Staff Photographer

Back in April, Charlotte-based Belk signaled it might be up for sale, but since then it hasn’t shed any new light on its plans.

One thing is certain, though. The Belk brand is iconic and beloved by many around Charlotte. As the destination for bridal registries, back-to-school outfits, furnishings for a first home and – once upon a time – bridal gowns, the Southern department store carries with it a certain nostalgia.

I can personally attest to that: A long mint-green strapless dress my mom bought me for my junior prom is probably still collecting dust in my parents’ house in South Charlotte. I’ve never been able to throw it away myself; too many fond memories.

The more I learn about this brand, the more tidbits like that I hear from longtime Charlotteans, residents and transplants alike.

Jackie Hagwood grew up in Charlotte and remembers shopping in the uptown Belk bargain basement in the 1940s and 1950s. Hagwood describes feeling a “closeness to Belk,” her destination for prom dresses and church clothes, that she’s never felt for retailers such as Dillard’s and J.C. Penney.

“Belk is just synonymous with Charlotte,” says Hagwood, who now lives in Bethune, S.C. “I hope (the sale) doesn’t happen.”

Cliff Lefstead also remembers and frequented that bargain basement in the uptown Charlotte Belk, which closed in June 1988, and the store’s elevator was the first he’d ever seen as a boy. He also says he wouldn’t like to see the company get sold.

A New York-based private equity firm called Sycamore Partners is said to be putting together an offer to buy Belk for up to $3.5 billion. But it’s hard to put a price tag on what’s referred to as brand equity.

Industry experts say in a time when many brick-and-mortar retailers buckle under the pressure from e-commerce and other competition, others like Belk have the advantage of their longstanding brand, which many shoppers prefer over national brands like Macy’s, a coast-to-coast giant that operates over 800 stores.

Tracing its roots back almost 130 years to a little shop in Monroe, Belk is now the largest family-owned department store chain in the U.S., but it has a much smaller footprint than Macy’s. It currently has 296 stores, mainly in the Southeast.

“If you buy (Belk), there’s no reason why you wouldn’t want to preserve the name,” Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group, said. “They’re in a situation where there is equity in the name.”

A Belk spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.

One former corporate employee told the Observer that Belk’s “Modern. Southern. Style.” identity might limit the department store chain were it to decide to expand one day outside the Southeast since many people outside the region aren’t familiar with the company.

That regional identity has a strong following in the South, though, and it’s one of the things people love most about the company. It’s hard to avoid the pastel seersucker pants and the pops of color from Lilly Pulitzer dresses at big Belk stores like SouthPark.

Still, lots of shoppers remain true to Belk simply because it’s one of the few shops in town. Many Belk stores are in smaller markets, reflecting the chain’s small-town roots.

A Rock Hill Galleria shopper, Cheryl, who declined to give her last name, has been a Belk customer since she started shopping at what was then called Gallent-Belk in her hometown Anderson, S.C., nearly four decades ago.

“When you look at the stores here, it’s the best option,” she said of the Rock Hill Belk, adding that she hopes the area will add more retail options.

Others say they stick with the local chain because it’s long carried their preferred brands. Johnny Morris told me at the Eastridge Mall Belk in Gastonia that he’s been a Belk shopper for his whole life – 45 years – and has always preferred Belk over Dillard’s because Belk sells one of his favorite clothing lines, Sean John, and Dillard’s doesn’t.

In April, when Belk indicated it was considering a sale, Facebook exploded with comments from people who grew up shopping at Belk, lamenting the possible loss local control of another Charlotte retailer.

The outcry about Belk is not unlike in the summer of 2013 when Cincinnati-based Kroger announced it was acquiring Matthews-based Harris Teeter. The local grocer’s Facebook page was besieged by thousands of comments, many from shoppers imploring that Kroger not change Harris Teeter.

Belk loyalty is also similar to Chicago’s Marshall Fields, which Macy’s, then called Federated Department Stores, took over in 2005. By fall 2006, Federated had re-bannered all Fields stores, angering loyalists. The brand no longer exists, but those loyalists do.

James McCay, co-organizer of the group Fields Fans Chicago and webmaster of its website, says it’s the combination of Marshall Fields’ longstanding local history (it was founded in 1852) and customer service (in 2005 ranked nearly as high as Nordstrom) that made shoppers love the brand.

McCay’s group meets a handful times a year – to host history lectures about Marshall Fields, once the No. 3 most visited destination in Chicago, and to protest Macy’s shareholder meetings in Cincinnati.

Experts say it’s not very likely a rival department store like Macy’s makes an offer for Belk. Loyal shoppers who’ve been following Belk’s saga these last few months seem to be waiting with bated breath, though, and passions are running high.

“Probably Henry Belk might turn over in his grave since he’s the one who started it,” shopper Hagwood said of a Belk sale.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta