Store makes smooth transition from McRaes to Belk

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Seven months of work and five trips by the store manager to the Carolinas plus plenty of online training for other employees have culminated in the transition of the former McRae&8217;s store to Belk in the Natchez Mall.

Part of the 2005 acquisition by the North Carolina-based department store for $622 million of 47 Proffitt&8217;s and McRae&8217;s stores in 11 southeastern states, the Natchez store now dons the lighted Belk sign on its fa?ade and exhibits the Belk layout and design on the interior.

&8220;It was very smooth. We&8217;ve made it and arrived at this date,&8221; said Mary Flach, who oversaw the transition as store manager both for the former McRae&8217;s and now for Belk.

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Business is excellent, Flach said. In fact, the Natchez store is No. 1 in the western division of Belk, having topped the goal set for increased sales. &8220;It&8217;s very healthy,&8221; she said. &8220;And they have made it absolutely clear that we can grow. I have dreams, but it takes time.&8221;

The Natchez store is an $11 million a year store. The largest Belk stores are $40 million stores. &8220;I truly believe we&8217;ll be larger,&8221; Flach said. &8220;I want to go to $12 million or higher.&8221;

The ribbon cutting was Wednesday, signaling the formal opening of Belk. Today, more celebrations continue at the store, with specials and grand opening events.

Customers may have noticed a few changes taking place during the past seven months, but they were gradual enough not to cause disruptions, Flach said.

&8220;We had elves at night who did things after the store was closed,&8221; she said. &8220;And another reason it has been very smooth is that we have kept most of our associates and all of our managers, people Natchez shoppers already knew.&8221;

Belk is a store with history, having started in 1888 when 26-year-old William Henry Belk opened the first store in Monroe, N.C.

He had $750 to invest in the store and borrowed $500. With that, he took $3,000 in merchandise from a bankrupt store on consignment to stock his store. Before the year was out, he had made back his investment and had netted a $3,300 profit.

The one store multiplied to three by 1895. Today, Belk Inc., based in Charlotte, N.C., is the largest privately owned department store organization in the United States, with stores in 14 states in southeast and mid-Atlantic states. Descendants of the founder continue to own and operate the stores.

Angie McCranie has worked at the Natchez Mall store for 13 years. Like Flach, she has been impressed by the smooth transition from one store ownership to another.

&8220;There are different brands we&8217;ve had to become familiar with &8212; Izod, for example; and Red Camel, a new upbeat, forward look for men 25 to 38, a kind of look we haven&8217;t had in a while,&8221; McCranie said.

As sales manager for lingerie, dresses, accessories, jewelry, swimwear, coats, juniors and young men, McCranie has a big area to oversee. &8220;I&8217;m really excited. Everyone has been receptive to the changes,&8221; she said. &8220;Sales have been great, and the customers are enjoying the excitement.&8221;

Flach said the company already has shown it will be mindful of its role in the community. &8220;They already have given me $3,000 for the Habitat for Humanity promotion we do every year,&8221; she said.

The Belks running the company are frugal, she said. &8220;There is no waste. They want everything done right, neat and clean.&8221;

Customers will see some new brands, as McCranie indicated. There also will be Belk brands.

McCranie said employees have been pleased with the transition. &8220;Belk is a great place to work, with great benefits for the employees,&8221; she said. &8220;I think we&8217;ll be an asset to the community.&8221;