Belk’s Todd Huston Turns Labels into Brands

by Elise Diamantini

Todd HustonNames like Saddlebred, Pro Tour and Red Camel may not mean much yet to a national audience, but they’re household names in the South. Belk’s average margin in current private brands is better than branded by about two or three basis points, so it’s not surprising that it penetrates over 25 percent to total men’s business. Todd Huston, VP men’s private brands, is constantly creating new concepts to push Belk’s brands further.

“The private brands that are doing well are the ones that we keep updating,” Huston explains. “We’re always asking ourselves how do we improve and get better next year? Tom and David are both big proponents of that. They always say, ‘Ok, we had a great year, but how do we keep moving?’ The worst year I had here was the one after we said, things are good.”

Private label is a team effort at Belk. Buyers and planners work closely with the private brand team in implementing growth strategies. A recent success has been their Made Cam Newton line, a better-priced sportswear and tailored clothing collection. Huston explains, “Most of our private label businesses are opening price, and the idea behind Made was to move out of that good category into better. It comprises items like better wovens (made in El Salvador) and knits from one of the best makers in India. We put the quality in that brand and upped the ante for what it can mean to that Southern customer.”

Another opportunity expanding out of moderate pricing and into better is Chip & Pepper (which launched in the men’s and women’s modern space this fall). David Zant notes that because both Made and Chip & Pepper have different strategies, they need a little nurturing and building along the way. Huston confides that this is a critical year for perfecting each brand.

Other plans for growth come from their opening-price resort line, Ocean & Coast. Huston says that Ocean & Coast spun off from some very successful spring business with Saddlebred. “We have great success with Tommy Bahama and we were selling a lot of Island-inspired prints in Saddlebred, so we created Ocean & Coast to build off of that success.” They’re currently fine-tuning its strategy for becoming an important brand for fall ’14.

Saddlebred is the foundation of Belk’s men’s private label business. It’s designed for Belk’s middle demographic, but skews slightly traditional. While the brand spans both tailored and sportswear, Huston calls out bow ties and polo shirts as best sellers.
He also says their young men’s brand Red Camel has been growing nicely over the past few years. “Red Camel started as a workwear brand in 1931 during the Depression. Eight years ago we dusted it off and introduced it for young men’s and juniors. We present it to him in a way that he understands the product but we also use this brand as an opportunity to inject trends that we believe in.”

In tailored and furnishings, Belk sources private brands through various vendors, but 90 to 95 percent of sportswear is sourced through Li & Fung. When asked about looming price increases, Huston is candid: “Our biggest knit business is in Indonesia and the Indonesians are actively lobbying for a 30 percent minimum wage hike. Everyone saw what happened in Bangladesh and it has ripple effects that we’re going to start feeling soon. One thing that won’t change is our clear direction—we refuse to sacrifice quality. We have a commitment to our customer and it will pay off for us long term.”