Belk celebrates 125 years amid sounds of progress
NATCHEZ — For the next several months, the soothing department store music in Belk will be occasionally punctuated with the hiss and pop of nail guns — the sound of celebration, expansion and progress.
As the Belk department store chain marks its 125th anniversary, the company’s location in the Natchez Mall will be getting a $2 million remodel.
Natchez Store Manager Mary Flach said the three-and-a-half to four-month remodel of the 77,000-square-foot store will be done in 11 phases, and that the store will remain open the entire time.
“Belk is one of the few privately-owned corporations in the United States still, and I am just excited that the Belk brothers are willing to invest $2 million in little old Natchez,” Flach said.
Construction will start in earnest this week, but last week workers built temporary walls expanding the store out into the mall atrium. Flach said the atrium space will be used to house merchandise while the different areas of the store are under construction, but once the remodel is completed the walls will come down and the merchandise will be returned to inside the store.
Natchez Mall Manager Marie Lofton said mall customers have been curious about the construction of the temporary walls, but that they have not presented a problem.
“It is not going to affect anything out here right now, and it is just temporary,” she said. “It is just part of the things that go along with remodeling.”
“When you have a store that big with no room to shuttle around there (while under construction), you just have to go with the flow on it and be patient.”
Flach said the ultimate goal of the phased construction was to inconvenience Belk and mall customers as little as possible, but she too asked for patience.
In an effort to help customers maintain that patience, however, Flach said most of the noisiest work in the store — demolition — would be done after business hours.
“During the day, customers will hear nail guns and maybe some light noises, but it will all be done behind plastic sheeting — they won’t see anything,” she said.
The shuffling of merchandise from one area to the next as the work progresses will also be done after hours, and the store manager said that employees would be happy to help customers as the familiar layout of the retail space changes.
“If they don’t see their normal (shopping area), it is there — they just need to come in and ask an associate where it is,” Flach said.
When the work is done, customers will notice the most change will be in new flooring, new lighting fixtures, a new arrangement for the different sections of the store and updated dressing rooms and restrooms, Flach said.
But the remodel will also allow the store to expand its product lines and will ultimately result in the opening of a men’s store in what is now the home store area, she said.
“We recently ended up getting Ralph Lauren’s Polo (brand) back in our doors, and we have been one of the top-selling Ralph Lauren Polo stores since then — Natchez loves Polo,” Flach said. “What that has shown us is that our men’s business can get bigger, it just needs space.”
The home store will move into an area in the main store area.
“Both of those families of business — men’s and home — are so strong to us here, and we want to provide the best,” Flach said
The women’s shoes section will expand its space by 30 percent, and the store’s jewelry department will also be enlarged.
Lofton said other stores in the mall have done renovation work in recent years, but nothing as expansive as Belk’s plans.
“It is a wonderful plan, it is going to be good for Natchez and it will be good for shoppers — it’s going to be really, really nice,” she said. “I know they have good taste and everything is going to be done top notch.”
Though it will not close for the construction, the store will have a grand reopening after the work is completed scheduled for Oct. 16.
Though Flach said it wasn’t planned that way, the construction coincides with Belk’s 125th anniversary.
Wednesday the store will mark that anniversary with a VIP breakfast at 8 a.m. for its top 50 customers, local dignitaries and those who supported Belk’s local Habitat for Humanity effort.
At 9 a.m. at the home store entrance, Natchez Mayor Butch Brown, Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland and Andrew Calvit with Habitat for Humanity will speak, and Burnley Cook will play the calliope.
The first 100 customers into the store that day will get a gift card. Refreshments and special promotions will also be available.
The first Belk store opened May 29, 1888, in Monroe, N.C. The Natchez store opened in 1977 as a McRae’s, and was converted to Belk in 2005 when the company bought the McRae’s and Proffitt’s stores.