Early in the premiere of the newest season of the show “Project Runway,” fashion guru and host Tim Gunn gestures toward a sky blue wall loaded with shoes and sunglasses, bangles and boots, and other stylish accoutrements.
“I’m very pleased to introduce our new accessories partner – Belk department stores,” Gunn tells the reality-show contestants, in the episode airing Thursday night.
“Belk,” Gunn says, “epitomizes the modern, Southern woman.”
Belk will be taking the national stage each week as a sponsor of the 12th season of the show, which airs on Lifetime.
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It will be the longest and most sustained national presence for Belk in the company’s 125 year history. The company’s involvement in the show underscores a new era for Belk and other retailers, with brick-and-mortar stores being only one piece of an overall marketing campaign that relies more heavily on the Internet to woo customers.
It’s a moment the retailer says wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. That was before the Charlotte-based department store company launched a multiyear, $600 million effort that included updating the company’s logo, brand, and national e-commerce efforts.
Belk is sponsoring the accessory wall, which the contestant-designers – including N.C. State fashion design professor Justin LeBlanc – use to amp up the looks of models wearing their designs. Those designs are judged on the runway show each week. Belk also gets its own episode, featuring a design challenge based on its tagline, “Modern. Southern. Style.” John Thomas, the company’s executive vice president, private brands, will be a guest judge. That show airs Sept. 12.
Belk won’t discuss terms of the contract with the show. But Katrina Streiner, Belk’s vice president of creative services, says the company is hoping for an effect like the one it saw during its first sponsorship of the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium in 2011, when the company ran its first national television commercial.
“That one ad generated sales on Belk.com from every single state in the country,” Streiner says. “We do expect sales increase.… After we get an episode or two under our belt, we may have a better gauge of what to expect.”
‘No patience’ for stores
Belk’s partnership with the show came together so fast that the company didn’t have time to buy commercials to air during the show, Streiner says.
“It happened literally in three weeks,” says Lance Still, executive vice president for promotions and integrated marketing with The Weinstein Company, which produces the reality program.
Still says she approached Belk while researching a new retail partner. The show’s previous sponsors have included coast-to-coast retailer Macy’s, e-tailer-only sites Bluefly and Piperlime, and most recently, Lord & Taylor.
She doesn’t consider it a big departure going with a regional department store.
Still compares Belk’s 301 stores in 16 states with Lord & Taylor’s 49 stores, mainly in the Eastern United States.
Both also have retail websites, which is becoming increasingly preferred among customers. According to the National Retail Federation, Internet-based retail sales are quickly becoming a significant portion of total retail sales.
The U.S. Commerce Department reports retail e-commerce sales totaled $61.2 billion for the first quarter of 2013, up 2.7 percent from the fourth quarter of 2012.
“I’m a pretty busy executive. … I have no patience with walking in the store,” says Still.
“Regional stores have gone the way of the Internet,” she adds. “With Belk.com, they can reach as many people as other retailers.”
A boost from Heidi Klum
“Project Runway” was a ratings powerhouse for Bravo when it debuted in 2004, but has had challenges maintaining momentum.
Still, Hollywoodreporter.com said in an article last August that the show survived the turbulent network shift to Lifetime in 2009. Despite ratings fluctuations, “Project Runway” captured 2 million viewers for its Season 10 premiere, according to the article.
“We’ve seen some ups and downs in the viewership,” Still says. “Since season 9, the numbers have continued to grow.”
Streiner says Belk will run a heavy social media campaign on Twitter, Pinterest and other sites during and after each episode. And a Facebook contest will let fans win either a selection from the accessory wall or a trip to New York City to see a “Project Runway” taping during the finale at New York Fashion Week.
There’s also a belk.com/projectrunway site, which will post new behind-the-scenes clips every Friday morning and a chance to shop the accessory wall products featured in that episode.
Belk fashion director Arlene Goldstein and buying teams selected the wall merchandise, which match themes for each episode, Streiner said. They curated several hundred pieces, enough to change out the wall every other episode or so. Belk also designed the wall, centering its logo featuring sleek lowercase letters adorned with blue petals, and including an oversized version of the petals for pop.
Gunn touts the retail partner in every episode: “You all know to use the Belk accessory wall very thoughtfully,” he says in the first show.
Supermodel-host Heidi Klum touts the retailer in episode one, too, in announcing the winner’s prize package, which includes the chance to create a Belk collection.
That kind of celebrity endorsement can be lucrative for Belk as it works to convince a national audience that “modern Southern style” fits them, says Sheri Bridges, faculty director for the Center for Retail Innovation at Wake Forest University Schools of Business.
“Fashion is a tough business,” Bridges says. “The more people … (and) designers you can get thinking about your brand, working on behalf of your brand, the easier it’s going to be that you can live up to those claims.”
Charlotte Observer researcher Maria David contributed.