In May 1888, William Henry Belk opened a small bargain store in Monroe, N.C., using $750 he had saved after working 12 years for another merchant.
He sold his wares mainly to farmers looking for necessities rather than luxuries for a set retail price with no haggling at the counter on a cash-only basis — revolutionary ideas at the time because many farmers and merchants traded on a time-payment system when their crops came in.
The move paid off to help Belk weather economic downturns, and little by little, Belk and his brother John branched out by opening new stores, first in Chester, then Union and then Charlotte, many times with partners but always with the Belks holding a majority share in the businesses. Though the first store operated under the name New York Racket, it morphed into the Belk name and over the next 125 years mushroomed into a 301-store chain across 16 Southern states.
Four of the Charlotte-based department store chain’s shops anchor shopping malls across the Charleston area. With its 125th anniversary on May 29 approaching, it’s only fitting that the family-owned Belk use the occasion to launch an expansion of one of its Charleston stores.
By this fall, Belk will be well on its way to doubling the size of its footprint at Mount Pleasant Towne Centre and turning the shop into a flagship store, according to Tim Belk, chairman and CEO of the department store operator.
“Because of the growth in the Charleston market and its tourism, it’s a great opportunity for a flagship store,” Belk said. “It will be something pretty dramatic.”
In the first phase, the men’s department will move across the parking lot by November to the 30,000-square-foot building that once housed Earth Fare and then a short-lived Guy Harvey restaurant.
The existing 82,000-square-foot store will be expanded by 30,000 square feet by October 2014 and include a parking deck that will allow entry into the store. The expansion will occur into a parking lot on the north side of the Belk building, causing Palmetto Moon and the shopping center’s management offices to relocate in the mall.
Palmetto Moon will remain at Towne Centre because it still has nine years remaining on its lease, according to co-owner Bob Webster. The $10.2 million expansion will result in every department within Belk using more floor space and adding more product lines, Belk said. The number of employees will grow from 150 to 200, he said.
The shoe department will double in size and will feature new brands such as Isaac Mizrahi and Via Spiga, with expanded assortments from Frye, Ugg, Sam Edelman and Donald Pliner. The cosmetics area will reflect an “open sell” environment with new premium brands.
Women’s apparel will also grow significantly with larger assortments from Lily, Eileen Fisher, Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors, as well as new offerings from French Connection, BCBG, Paige, Seven and Free People.
Belk called a flagship store one that is large-volume in a multi-store market. “We think Charleston is an ideal market for that,” he said. “We feel well-positioned for the opportunity.”
He pointed to the region’s growth and the median household income in Mount Pleasant, which at $77,000 is $32,000 more than the state average and $22,000 more than Summerville, the next closest major municipality by income in the Charleston region.
The company has 14 flagship stores but will add up to 14 more over the next five years, Belk said.