ATLANTA — The creation of “Zuniverse” has been a big bang for Belk’s junior department.

As one of the hottest categories, besting overall sales during the holiday season, the momentum for junior sportswear continued into January. Zuniverse, Belk’s revamped in-store shop concept, is credited with much of the strong sales performance. Taking cues from successful specialty stores and chains, Zuniverse has created a more teen-friendly ambience to entice shoppers.

The revamped visual design includes graphics, displays and signage. Logos and images of a stylized “Z Girl” replace old photography, and an updated sound system offers new music. In some cases, Belk’s is experimenting with coffee or smoothie bars adjacent to departments to inspire customers to linger.

Developed in-house last year and now in place in all 210 Belk’s locations, each shop’s visual presentation is tailored to individual stores. Charlotte, N.C.-based Belk Stores operates units in 13 states throughout the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.

“For juniors, it’s all about fun,” said Linda Brandenburg, division manager, who played a key role in developing and implementing the new concept. “This atmosphere is more conducive to the junior customer, as a comfortable place within our stores, where she will want to come hang out and spend time with friends.” The department, she added, is “ever changing, as customers change.”

Beyond marketing and an inviting physical space, Zuniverse has also transformed product and tightened merchandising strategies. Belk’s former collection-oriented junior mix now focuses on trends, color and key items, with fewer basics and more updated looks.

Product is divided into three main areas:

Status features brands such as Tommy by Tommy Hilfiger, Polo and Guess.

Young Directions focuses on related separates incorporating a variety of trends in private labels and brands such as Energie, It’s Our Time and L.A. Movers. Merchandise is grouped by color, rather than product or vendor, with color stories changing every 90 to 120 days.

Key Items is the fastest-growing area. Changing regularly, January’s “key item” offered chunky sweaters in a range of colors, novelty yarns and silhouettes.

“We don’t think juniors shop looking for specific vendors,” said Steve Pernotto, senior vice president of Belk Stores Services. “They respond to fashion and color.”

A new clearance area also helps keep inventories clean. With the exception of “status” areas, private label is a growing part of Belk’s strategy, allowing for quick response to trends and better quality control.

Zuniverse also attracts junior customers with CD giveaways and frequent-shopper discounts. So far, the Zuniverse Web site is promotional and informational, referring shoppers to or Belk’s store locator.

Zuniverse has boosted sales for the junior department, which was already an important, growing category for Belk’s.

“The influx of customers in this age group, which [according to Belk’s studies], has an average weekly income of around $91, has made juniors important to us,” Pernotto said.

Vendors give Belk’s strategy high marks.

Mudd Jeans has scaled down Belk’s presentation over the past year, for a narrow and deep mix of best-selling styles in new washes. With less merchandise, volume has declined, but profitability has increased 50 percent, according to Amber Jung, sales representative for Mudd.

At Paris Blues, a New York-based denim firm, Belk’s business has doubled over the past 1 1/2 years as the store’s vision has changed, said Lisa Engelman, director of sales.

“The department is easier to shop now,” Engelman said. “The customer doesn’t have to go through rounders or a sea of denim. Department store shopping tends to be a family affair that attracts teens with their mothers. Anything department stores can do to make junior areas destinations, where girls will shop by themselves, is good.”

Belk’s plans to build on the Zuniverse concept by adding gifts, pajamas, T-shirts and logo items this year.

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