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Men’s wear has been on fire at Belk over the past four years and there’s no end in sight.

This story first appeared in the March 18, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We’ve had some phenomenal growth,” said David Zant, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s and home for the department-store chain. “Men’s is one of our fastest-growing businesses.”

From 2008 to 2012, men’s wear sales have grown 25 percent, outpacing the store as a whole, he revealed.

What has driven much of the gains has been the expansion of the better business. Polo Ralph Lauren, for example, is now carried in 165 of the company’s 300-plus stores and is being rolled out to 180 units this fall. Nautica is carried in more than 200 doors now, and more upscale brands such as Tommy Bahama and Lacoste have also increased their store count.


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“What’s unique about our men’s business is we have a strong penetration of both better and moderate,” Zant said. “We profile our stores based on demographics and attributes, and tailor the assortments accordingly.”

That said, “We continue to build the better business. That has been happening more significantly over the last several years,” Zant noted.

The catalyst for this shift has been Polo.

“Ralph Lauren has had a higher growth rate than total men’s. We’ve really invested in it and we’ve seen the benefits. It’s a brand that provides us the umbrella for the better men’s business.”

Internally, Belk refers to its smaller stores as “icon doors,” Zant said, and they have “more abbreviated assortments” with a higher penetration of “replenishment and key items.” But even in these stores, the better brands have made inroads. Natchez, Miss., for instance, started as an icon door but has “blossomed” into a market that has accepted the higher-priced offerings. “There’s a more-affluent customer there and they embraced it.”

He said Belk’s three separate operating divisions are the “eyes in the field,” and report back to the merchants when customers are asking for specific products or categories. Couple that with the company’s research into the demographics of a particular market and it provides “dual feedback,” Zant said. “And we also look at whether the better vendors are performing in [women’s] ready-to-wear and center core [accessories],” he added.

Today, men’s wear represents 17 percent of the company’s annual sales, a number that has been rising steadily over the past few years. “It’s gone up almost a full percentage point over the last four years,” he said. “And the better business has played a strong hand in that.”

Even though the Belk customer is still more traditional than department-store shoppers in the Northeast or on the West Coast, Zant has seen a definite shift to a “more updated and modern sensibility toward apparel,” a trend that really “moves” the assortment.

For example, the chain added Black Brown 1826, the Joseph Abboud-designed men’s wear label created for Lord & Taylor, exclusively to 60 doors last year. The company has also recruited Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to serve as the face of an exclusive collection of suits, sport coats and sportswear under the Made Cam Newton label. It will launch in 133 stores this spring. “It’s more updated in styling, has a slightly slimmer fit, and there’s a real color element to it that the Southern customer really likes,” Zant said.

Calvin Klein sportswear, while “not in a large number of stores,” is definitely growing, he said. “And we’re getting good traction in premium denim with brands like Lucky and Calvin Klein, so we’re expanding the door count for those.”

The Belk private label, Red Camel, also speaks to this trend. “It’s like American Eagle but a 40-year-old can wear it, too,” he said. “It has a trimmer fit and is more trend-focused.”

In addition, over the last year, the company added activewear to its assortment, with Under Armour, Nike and its private brand, SB Tech, among the brands offered. “They’re the anchors as we build the active concept,” Zant said, adding that they also appeal to a “younger profile.”

In general, the Belk customer is in his mid-40s, and has above-average income. “It’s a slightly more mature customer, but the age has come down,” he said. “And to be honest, 75 to 80 percent of the merchandise sold is women shopping for men.”

He pointed out that the company is careful not to go too far and alienate the traditional shopper, but a younger, more fashion-forward customer is definitely the focus.

“Our re-branding has helped,” Zant said. Three years ago, the company introduced a new corporate logo, color palette and tagline: Modern. Southern. Style. As chairman and chief executive officer Tim Belk said at the time: “Our new brand clearly communicates what our company is today and what we aspire to be in the future. While we will continue to meet the needs of our traditional and classic customers, we are changing our brand and expanding our assortments to attract new customers who are looking for modern, updated brands and styles.”

Zant said the strong marketing push, which includes TV ads, print ads and in-store signage, has had an impact.

Besides the corporate marketing initiatives, the men’s division also reaches out in a variety of ways to communicate with its customers, including catalogs, e-mail messages and in-store events. There are also brand-specific pieces that are targeted to the men’s shopper, such as a mailer that highlights Columbia Sportswear. “We do quarterly pieces with Columbia,” Zant said, some of which revolve around performance fishing gear.

“We have a lot of stores on the coast,” he said. There are also separate mailers for Izod, Chaps and the active brands.

Men’s-specific events are also held in the stores. Zant said that the Wells Fargo Championship PGA golf tournament will be held in Charlotte in early May and golfer and 2012 U.S. Open winner Webb Simpson will appear at the company’s flagship there.

Overall, Zant said Belk’s men’s mix is about 50 percent sportswear and 50 percent tailored clothing and furnishings.

In terms of growth areas, he said that while suit sales were “just OK” last year with a 6 percent sales gain, suit separates were the star, rising 23 percent. “And that’s on top of a 20 percent increase the year before,” he said. In fact, suit separates sales have nearly doubled in the past four years.

Here, too, modern silhouettes are gaining in importance. Zant said about half the business in clothing is traditional and half is modern, which is characterized by trimmer fits, flat-front pants and more-shaped silhouettes.

“The growth is really on the modern side,” he said. And in all categories, color has been a real driver of sales.

The men’s division also has a significant private brand business, accounting for 27 percent of sales. In addition to Red Camel, SB Tech and Made Cam Newton, there is Saddle Bred, an opening price-point classifications brand offering sweaters, woven shirts, T-shirts and casual pants.

There’s also Pro Tour, Belk’s golfwear collection developed in association with Perry Ellis International. “We have a separate golf department that scales from better to moderate based on door,” he said. Brands include Callaway, Greg Norman Collection, Under Armour, Izod and Pro Tour, the latter two of which are carried in nearly all units.

Other private brands include Madison, a dressy, more updated line of suit separates, furnishings and neckwear. And the most recent addition is Ocean & Coast, an island-inspired collection of casualwear that is “more updated than Tommy Bahama,” he said. “Last year was our first year with it and it’s done well.”

Like other retailers, Belk tries to add exclusives — Black Brown for example — “where it makes sense. We have a 16-state footprint so we want to differentiate where we can.”

The company’s primary competition is Dillard’s, Macy’s, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney, and with certain businesses such as tailored clothing, it’s the independent specialty stores, too.

But Zant believes Belk can continue to drive sales as long as it keeps its finger on the pulse of its customers. “We think of the end user in everything we do,” he said. “And we think we’re getting better at that.”

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