Justine Griffin / Herald-Tribune – One hundred years ago, a man named Robert M. Beall opened a little establishment on Old Main Street in downtown “Bradentown.”
That small general store, which debuted in April 1915, would be the first of hundreds to open across the country under the name of that young entrepreneur.
Bealls, a retail company known for selling apparel and home goods in department and outlet stores in Florida and across the country, is celebrating its 100th year in business this year.
Staying in business for a century — and continuing to grow — has been no small feat. But the Bradenton-based retailer has managed to reinvent itself through the years without sacrificing its core image.
“Bealls really has an understanding of the marketplace and a good idea of what the consumer wants,” said Rick McAllister, CEO of the trade group the Florida Retail Federation, in which Bealls has been an active member since the 1950s. “They listen to their customers and know what Floridians are interested in, which has served them well over the years.”
Today, Bealls sells apparel and shoes for everyone in the family — along with home goods and small appliances — in more than 500 department stores and outlet stores in Florida and the southern U.S. The company’s headquarters is still in Bradenton, where that first store opened in 1915.
“They continue to do well because they’ve kept a regional focus, where their assortments speak typically to a Florida or coastal customer,” said Steve Kirn, executive director of the David F. Miller Retailing Education and Research Center at the University of Florida. “They’ve found their niche and stuck to it.
“It’s much harder to do that when you’re a bigger department store, like Macy’s, and you have to have the same merchandise in every store across the country.”
While department stores have gotten smaller and outlet stores have expanded at a greater rate over the years, Bealls continues to sell merchandise for Floridians — the residents and the visitors.
Unlike its national competitors, like Kohl’s or TJ Maxx or even some department stores, like J.C. Penney, Bealls is able to offer a specialized assortment of merchandise.
Every Bealls department store has a Tervis Tumbler store-within-a-store display, and Bealls in-house designers have developed lines of kitchenware and patio furniture to match the Venice-based tumbler maker’s designs, said Lorna Nagler, president of Bealls department stores division.
“We work with brands that really speak to the Florida lifestyle,” Nagler said.
Those include not only Nautica and Salt Life, but also new designers like Betsey Johnson and Jessica Simpson.
“It’s important to us that even as we grow and expand, we stick to our roots,” Nagler said. “We know Florida better than anyone else, in terms of retail.”
Two years ago, Bealls launched a line of women’s apparel that featured canvas art designs by Leoma Lovegrove, a Naples artist.
“We took her colorful, Florida-inspired pieces and put them on scarves, jackets, pants, you name it,” Nagler said.
The line was so successful that Bealls expanded it to include suitcases, coffee tumblers and other home-decor items.
“It was a fresh design and something we’d never done before,” Nagler said. “But it speaks to our customers and we are supporting a local Florida artist.”
Like all retailers in recent years, Bealls has had to evolve in order to compete with online retailers and national chains. Now, throughout department stores are kiosks where shoppers can look up items they don’t see on display. Sales at beallsflorida.com also are booming.
During the holidays, Bealls’ shipping fulfillment center was shipping Cyber Monday merchandise to Florida doorsteps the very next day.
The online segment of Bealls’ business is now stronger than any top-performing brick-and-mortar store.
Bealls began as a simple dry goods store called “Dollar Limit” on Old Main Street a century ago.
“Nothing was priced more than $1 when it opened,” said Kirn, the UF retailing official. “The company always aimed at offering a value and targeted people moving into Florida at the time.”
Founder Robert M. Beall was known for being deeply involved in the Manatee County community. He even had a hand in bringing spring training for the National Baseball League to the region.
Beall’s first store was near the shipping docks on the Gulf of Mexico, where daily steamers delivered passengers and packages from Tampa.
In the 1920s, Dollar Limit was renamed “V Dollar Limit”, and all merchandise was priced under $5.
By the 1930s, the end of boom times was weighing on many businesses in Florida, including the Bealls family and their retail business.
Beall lost his store to the bank in 1932, but continued to manage the business. During the Great Depression, he helped found the Kiwanis Trailer Park, which brought tourists into the community and eventually became the largest trailer park in the world at that time.
In 1940, Robert Beall’s son, E.R., joined the family business after graduating from the University of Florida. In 1946, after serving in the army, he rejoined his father.
“It was E.R.’s vision that began the company’s expansion into the shopping centers that served the middle income retirees who were flocking to Florida,” the chain says.
The company that would become Bealls began to expand, opening a new store in Bradenton in 1956.
In 1961, the third store opened in Venice. That same year, the company’s sales topped $1 million for the first time. A fourth store opened in Punta Gorda in 1966 and by 1967, sales had grown to $3 million.
E.R.’s son, Robert M. Beall II (called “Bob”), became president and CEO in 1980. By 1981, the company had 23 stores around Florida and sales were up to $38 million.
In 1987, Bealls launched its outlet division and began opening stores.
Steve Knopik, the company’s current CEO, joined the company in 1984. By decade’s end, sales for Bealls department and outlet stores had hit $110 million.
Bealls launched its website in 1998 — beallsflorida.com — making its first foray into online retailing.
In 2004, Bealls opened its own design studio to develop private-label brands for the department stores.
“They’ve been successful in that they’ve stayed true to their roots and never really gone after the bigger chains or switched to general merchandise,” Kirn said.
Now a new store concept, called “Bunulu,” is under development for a 2015 debut, exactly 100 years after the first opening in Bradenton.Bealls will open a new line of fashion stores under the Bunulu name in Florida this year.
Executives say the brand aims to capture a younger demographic. It will sell activewear and other lines of apparel for young adults inside these smaller footprint stores.
The price point will be higher than at a traditional Bealls department store, but aims to compete with popular more expensive brands like lululemon, a chain of small boutique-like stores that sell a high-end yoga clothing line, or Athleta, the Gap brand of performance line clothing.
“There’s a gap in the market that the new Bealls’ concept could likely fill,” said Jeff Green, retail analyst who is familiar with the Southwest Florida commercial scene. “Bunulu is making quality activewear, which really has become everyday wear to a younger consumer, and offering it at a more accessible price point.”
The new store’s tagline is: “Where style meets performance like water meets the sand.”
Bunulu stores will be small, bright and look like they would fit well in higher-end centers or malls. Bunulu will feature well-known and in-house brands: bathing suits and other coastal-themed apparel for a young professional demographic.
“It’s a new chapter for Bealls and we waited until the 100th year to debut it,” Nagler said.
While there are no official plans for stores just yet, Bealls is in the process of acquiring real estate and wants to open the first Bunulu concepts by the end of this year.
It’s likely that Bunulu will be found in outdoor lifestyle retail centers, similar to the revamp plans for Westfield Group’s Southgate mall in Sarasota, which is currently underway.
Even the shopping experience is expected to be wildly different compared with what’s found at a Bealls department store.
There will be no stationary check out cashiers. Instead, employees will be equipped with mobile point-of-sale devices.
Bunulu — again with a nod to its younger targeted audience — also is expected to have a strong social media presence.
Will it take another 100 years to launch another Bealls brand in this age of fast-changing retail?