The remodeled local Belk up-scale, fashionable department store has one-fifth more floor space, more shoes and other merchandise and brand varieties, wider aisles and clearer views across the store and is brighter and more uplifting, workers and customers said.
Charlotte-based Belk, Inc. renovated 30 of its 70 stores in this state. Remodeled an area at a time this year for $2 million, Belk in Hendersonville officially unveiled its new look Wednesday. The first 400 visitors got gift cards ($5-$500 each), and tiny stuffed Belkie Bears were among gifts. The main perk was the start of Belk Days, running through next week, as the store’s biggest sale in fall. At the reopening, Belk donated $5,000 to East Henderson High School’s Interact Club.
An advance tour by manager Jill Henry for The Tribune pointed out greater efficiencies and how it is “easier to shop.” Patrons and employees agreed, in consensus of comments to The Tribune. Three years of Belk planning included customer focus groups’ input, Henry said. Findings were “people want to come in here, find what they’re looking for, shop and get to where they’re next going,” she said. “The new experience is it’”
Local population and pace of small-town life and multi-tasking of working families has picked up since 1983, when Belk helped anchor the then-new Blue Ridge Mall, Henry said. The mall, the first in Henderson County, also features J.C. Penney and Kmart, now also T.J. Maxx with a Sear’s outlet to soon open in a new spot. Then-manager John Harris helped design an artsy “circle store” in the mall with curving aisles and no corners showing, 33-year associate Sharon Park recalled. The only prior remodeling was more minor.
In the big picture “we want to be the dominant retailer in the Southeast,” Henry said. Founded in 1888, Belk is the largest privately-owned mainline department store chain nationally with 303 stores in 16 Southern states and kept its focus in this region. Belk offers “quality modern Southern style with value” and more color, contemporary styling and splash than in most regions, said Henry who has purchased for Belk from Charlotte. Belk here gets swimwear later than stores in Florida, but stocks more sweaters, gloves and boots. Henry has worked for Belk for 26 years, the last six as local store manager.
She is excited at how the 76,000 square-foot store’s sales floor space grew 20 percent or 10,000 square feet, to about 60,000. This was by converting much stock room space, and “straightening aisles that used to curve.” Space and thus merchandise increased most in shoes, nearly doubling, and is 50 percent larger for handbags and other accessories. The latest changes, finished Tuesday, were in men’s clothing.
Main aisles were widened from 10 to 16 feet, other ones from six to eight feet. “Now, every department has a main aisle,” and can be seen across the store along with many more large brand signs and sub-section markers, Henry said.
Rival mall store J.C. Penney has also widened paths and space between merchandise displays, largely for better wheelchair access to abide by new government standards that took effect this spring, JCP jewelry specialist Marsha Reynolds said.
In Belk, brighter and white lighting makes it easier to see merchandise and in true shades, and fosters a happier and more alert ambiance, customers said. New LED lights save energy. Wood flooring was replaced by shiny white tile, which reflects and brightens light. Upgrades include new carpets, ceiling and display fixtures, and in fitting and rest rooms.
Regular Belk shoppers are impressed. Christine Edwards likes the layout as visually “clear,” not cluttered. Ralph Raesemann got extra exercise, with the men’s section moved from near the outdoor entrance to the back of the store.
‘Open-Sell,’ More Items, Memories
Jewelry and accessories sections now feature “open sell” fixtures, making it easier to examine and choose, Henry said. Before, jewelry was locked in a glass case. Now “it’s hands-on,” said Donna Kilbourn, who has worked in jewelry for nine years. Customers such as Paige Holiday from Brevard said it is fun to handle items. Kilbourn advises on “accessorizing” outfits.
A major change is adding such product lines as Dooney and Bourke and Franco Sarto hand bags; Skagen watches; Anne Klein jewelry and accessories, Kenneth Cole and Nine West jewelry, and Lucky and also Guess women’s shoes, Henry noted. Also newly in are Chaps men’s shoes and Merrell’s outdoor shoes, Under Armour socks, Ralph Lauren men’s undergarments, and “dressy” tailored-like suits in various brands.
Kim Rogers said customers like Belk’s own brands such as Biltmore (Estate-affiliated) for bed sheets in the home department she works in. In-house brands for men’s clothing include Saddlebred sweaters, Columbia, Red Camel and Field & Stream outdoor apparel, said Terry Saltz. He has worked in that section for 22 years. He coaches East Henderson High boys and girls tennis. Saltz calls the more open store “fantastic.”
Before going into the mall Belk-Simpson Co., as it was known then, was on Hendersonville’s Main Street between Third and Fourth on the east side. Its building was built in 1893 but burned in 1953, historian Tom Orr said. Now the Hands On! children’s museum and Black Bear coffee shop are there. Orr’s mother Alva Orr was a Belk sales clerk. In the early Forties whenever there was no baby sitter for a pre-school Tom when she worked, he stayed by her upstairs. He drew on paper behind a check-out counter, or waited in an empty dressing room overlooking Main. He swept and emptied trash, for fun.
Sharon Park started her Belk career in that Main Street era, 33 years ago in 1979. She was a lingerie buyer for the firm. Now as a “customer service lead,” she floats between several store sections and has “bonded” with longtime customers. “Belk is my family,” she said. Park likes the new, livelier color schemes such as lavender in lingerie and lively shades by children’s clothes. “It’s bright and beautiful, with easy access,” she said.
“Belk is working for me with a better workplace,” Park said, “and with (new) surroundings that help customers find what they need.”
For more on Belk, check www.belk.com or call the local store at 692-3236.