Retail Aristocracy

*This is the second entry in my attempt to profile some aristocrats, so that the blog might actually semi-live up to its name.*

Growing up in South Georgia in the early 80s, I remember three department stores: Sears, Penney’s, & Belk’s. (Notice how all of them are spelled and pronounced with an S on the end–Southerners are overly fond of making store names possessive.) Of the three, Belk’s was the “high cotton” one as far as merchandise, store decor, and overall appeal went. Memories have become muddled over the years, but our Belk in Valdosta was actually Belk-Hudson for many, many years. In fact, here’s proof:

The above looks to be from an old yearbook ad, and I’m way too young to remember a downtown, multi-level Belk’s like the one pictured in the ad. The Valdosta Mall was built on farm land when I was very young, at what time Belk’s moved from Five Points Shopping Center to the enclosed mall. A few years ago, the Valdosta Mall Belk’s did a substantial add-on to the existing store. They also expanded the children’s department into the former Eckerd’s drug store adjacent to the main store.

The complex company history of Belk’s would be left better told on this page of their Web site, but suffice to say it’s one of the few family-owned department stores with a large footprint left in the South. In fact, Belk’s bought out Birmingham-based Parisian a few years back, which multiplied their locations a great deal, especially in desirable mall locations. As I stated earlier, many of the Belk’s stores were so-called “partner stores” like the Belk-Hudson in Valdosta. Speaking of which, here’s a tiny, downtown Hudson-Belk location which was located in rural North Carolina and which managed to stay open until 2007, believe it or not:

I’m a rabid fan of old buildings, so the one above captivates me. I’m sure by the time it closed down, it wasn’t the fanciest store. But considering that it stayed open as long as it did, I think it says something about not only Belk’s, but the community which it served.

For their part, the Belk family lays pretty low on the radar. I had a friend who worked at the Valdosta Belk’s in college, and she once mentioned that Mr. Belk himself was coming to inspect the store. I thought she was pulling my leg, but sure enough, he showed up the next day to walk the store himself! I’m a member of a Southern retail fan page on Facebook, and never once have I heard anything bad about the Belk family. Considering that there are three or four tiers of Belk stores–based on the needs and tastes of the customers they serve–Belk has a good reputation for providing excellent customer service and offering goods at affordable price points. That, of course, goes a long way with consumer loyalty.

I’ll end with this anecdote: I went into a brand new Belk store in a prestigious strip mall in suburban Atlanta not long after I moved there in late 2006. My immediate reaction was, “This store is a Kohl’s with the Belk name on it!” I never stepped foot in the store again, as it was way too ho-hum for me. Fast forward to early 2008, when I visited the old Parisian/new Belk’s at Phipps Plaza in the Buckhead neighbourhood of Atlanta. I’m not sure I’d ever been so wowed by a department store, and I was proud it had the Belk nameplate on it. (I mentioned this to a Valdosta Belk’s employee when I was home visiting soon after, and they said that everyone in the company was thrilled with the Phipps store.) Belk, like all so-called aristocrats, is cunning: I might’ve not been wowed by the suburban strip mall location, but my socks were blown off by the luxury mall location. In a way, the company is a chameleon; after all, how else would they simultaneously operate stores in tiny towns and big cities like Charlotte and Atlanta alike. Long live Belk’s!


Here’s a few more photos I dug up:

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