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Belk didn’t just acquire Parisian department stores six years ago. It also added some top merchandising talent to the fold at the same time.
One of those was Dave Neri, now Belk’s executive vice president and general merchandise manager of shoes, cosmetics, accessories and fine jewelry. “I came with the buyout,” he said with a chuckle.
Before joining Belk, Neri had spent nine years at Parisian overseeing shoes, intimate apparel, accessories and home, so he brought a wealth of experience in those areas with him when he made the switch.
But the assortment and strategy has shifted since he came on board.
“There’s been an evolution over the last six years in terms of merchandise offering,” Neri said. This really became evident when Kathryn Bufano joined the company five years ago as president of merchandising and marketing. “With Kathy’s influence, we’ve had a very healthy transition to a more modern customer. That’s part of where the ‘Modern. Southern. Style.’ tag line came from. That was the direction the merchandise was moving.”
Bufano supported this initiative by adding a planning staff to the buying office and upgrading systems to make it easier to see what was popular and respond accordingly. “The company has moved from point A to point C,” he said. “It’s much more user-friendly.”
And it has also led to improved sales. “It’s resulted in strong comp-store increases,” Neri said, adding that the sales in his categories of business are “probably higher than the industry average.”
Although business did fall off during the recession, it has since rebounded. “The better price points grew at a faster rate than the moderately priced during the recession,” he said. “And that trend has continued. Our increases in better have been astonishing, and that’s been across the whole store. It’s been an interesting evolution.”
Neri believes women learned a few things during the downturn that changed their buying habits. “It’s been an interesting twist,” he said. “If she used to go out and spend $300 on a pair of shoes, during the recession she realized things were tough, so she spent $150 to $180 instead. She discovered she could get a great shoe for $180, and she became loyal to those new price points.”
And Belk was the beneficiary, enjoying the benefits of addressing its mix to the needs of this new customer.
The same holds true in handbags, watches and fine jewelry, categories that have been experiencing “explosive” sales in the past couple of years.
The vendor community too has supported the change, Neri said. “There are a lot of strong vendor partnerships that go along with it,” he said. “They’ve really embraced this strategy.”
In footwear, the company’s top vendors are Frye, Ugg, Michael Kors, Sam Edelman, Jessica Simpson, Lucky, Calvin Klein and Coach.
“We have dressy, casual and a boot business,” he said, noting that with the exception of Ugg and Frye, which are primarily boot brands, the rest of the mix is determined by fashion trends. “We’ll let the trend of the season dictate what becomes important,” he said. “It’s not driven by vendor.”
In designer handbags, Michael Kors, Coach, Brahmin and Dooney & Burke are “the four big hitters,” Neri said. In watches, the hottest names are Michael Kors and Fossil.
Like many other retailers, Belk has reaped the rewards of a strong shoe and accessories sales trend. “She can really upgrade an outfit by updating her handbags, shoes and jewelry,” he said. “And she’s doing it with brand names that she’s getting credit for. If you look at three black dresses, you can’t really tell the difference, but people know it’s a Michael Kors or a Coach bag. The same with jewelry. There’s a real brand recognition there as well.”
Besides the well-known brand names, Belk also targets the footwear and accessories business with private and exclusive brands. The big names here are New Directions, Kim Rogers and Cynthia Cynthia Rowley. “Kim and New Directions are more moderate,” Neri said, “but they offer fashion at a price.” The Cynthia Rowley line is higher-priced and designed exclusively for Belk.
In general, Neri said, because the better business is so strong, price really isn’t an issue. “If she likes it, she buys it,” he said. “In the more-moderate world, price is more important, but she still wants fashion.”
Across all categories, color has been the driving force. “In handbags, jewelry and footwear, color is playing a major role,” he said.
In footwear, sales are being driven by brand names, open sandals and a “resurgence of pumps.” And unlike in the past, today’s shopper is picking up more than one pair of shoes at a time. “It used to be one category at a time,” he said. “But now they’ll buy a flat or a sandal and have use for them all.”
Belk’s customer is very feminine and has a “very ladylike mind-set,” he said. “She doesn’t mind getting dressed up. She may not wear a dress 24/7, but she always looks nice and takes pride in it. She wants to have the right makeup, jewelry and handbag. It’s something that’s unique to a Southern mind-set.” And because she’s “not married to black, it allows us to be diverse.”
Neri also oversees men’s, which has also enjoyed strong shoe and accessory sales. In watches, Fossil, Michael Kors, Diesel and A|X: Armani Exchange are top sellers, which has allowed the store to “capture a younger guy. There’s a nice balance there.”
In shoes, the better business continues to drive sales. Cole Haan, Johnston & Murphy, Allen Edmonds, Steve Madden and Madden are the most popular, and Belk anticipates a strong response to the introduction of Made Cam Newton footwear this fall. Again, these brands have a “younger attitude.” Also popular are Sperry Top-Sider and Polo Ralph Lauren shoes.
Over the past five-plus years, Belk has put its muscle behind expanding the footwear and accessories areas, Neri said. “Six years ago, we weren’t known for our shoe department,” he said. “But we’ve increased 50 to 100 percent in terms of space.” And the category has also moved to a prime “front-door location.” Right now, 167 of the company’s 300-plus doors have installed prototype shoe departments, he said, and the plan is to continue to roll them out to the remaining units.
“And in the middle of all that, accessories picked its head up,” Neri continued. “So we re-prototyped jewelry, sunglasses, handbags and watches as well.”
Across the board, better footwear has been on a roll, with sales three times what they were five years ago. The better designer handbag business has enjoyed even stronger sales, rising five to six times over that period, Neri said. And watches have experienced strong double-digit sales increases as well.
Overall, shoes represent 10.5 percent of Belk’s total sales, accessories are 8 percent and fine jewelry, 2 percent.
Similar to the apparel categories, the top competitors for footwear and accessories are Kohl’s, J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Dillard’s, Neri said. And in larger markets, retailers such as Nordstrom also try to take market share.
But in Neri’s mind, he has one big advantage over most of these national chains. “I live in the South, and I get it,” he said. “It’s much easier for me to merchandise the stores then someone based in the Northeast.” He said Belk is also “not afraid to out-assort, out-color and out-market anybody. We have to be first with fashion and color and out-SKU everybody.”
Looking ahead, Neri believes the future is bright. “There’s nothing in the trends to say we’re going to see a slowdown,” he said. “We look at the center core like you would the foyer of your house. It’s the first impression people have and we need to stay out in front of the trends. We’ve done a good job with that and she’s noticed.”