Founded by two sisters in Birmingham in the nineteenth century, the Parisian department store chain spread throughout Alabama and the Southeast, eventually reaching as far north as Michigan. Retail customers were attracted to quality merchandise, reasonable prices, free gift wrapping, a liberal return policy, a six-month interest-free credit plan, and twice-a-year Bargain Days sales. Parisian shoppers also knew they would consistently receive personalized customer service from salespeople who knew them by name. The Proffitt's Inc. department store chain bought the Parisian franchise in the 1990s and sold it in 2006 to Belk's Inc., which discontinued the Parisian brand.
The Parisian Dry Goods and Millinery Company was founded in 1877 by Estella and Bertha Sommers in downtown Birmingham. Promising ladies of style "the fashions of two continents," the Sommers sisters opened their store in a building at 2030 First Avenue North in downtown Birmingham, but were forced to move the store three times in nine years as a result of financial problems that plagued the enterprise from the beginning. The store was sold several times before it was purchased in the early 1920s by Carl Hess and William Holiner.
The store nearly closed during the Great Depression because of financial troubles, but revenues increased greatly during the 1940s and 1950s, and gave the company a sturdy financial foundation. In 1950, when other retailers were charging 18 percent interest in their newly instituted credit card programs, Carl Hess's son, Emil, and William Holiner's son-in-law, Leonard Salit, who had taken over the business, devised an innovative six-month, interest-free credit program that helped establish Parisian as an industry leader in customer service. Under the aggressive marketing plan created by the Hess and Salit, the family-run Parisian became one of the first stores in America to offer free gift wrapping, free shipping, and a generous return policy.
As the Birmingham metropolitan area grew and residents began moving to the suburbs in the 1960s, Parisian followed its clientele, opening stores in Five Points West, Vestavia Hills, and Eastwood Mall. The chain expanded across the state in the 1970s. During the next 30 years, Parisian became a sought-after anchor for large-scale retail developments, including Bel Air Mall in Mobile, Madison Square Mall in Huntsville, Tuscaloosa's University Mall, Eastdale Mall in Montgomery, and The Summit in Birmingham.
Hess and Salit continued to run Parisian until Salit's death in 1972, after which the Hess family assumed full ownership of the store. In 1976, Donald Hess took the helm of the family business. He worked to expand the retail chain in other states in the Southeast, but economic matters often worked against him. The company went public in 1983 to raise funds for expansion, but the Hess family and Hal Abroms and his family, who Emil had brought into the company in 1972, remained majority shareholders. An Australian company bought the chain in 1988, but when it went bankrupt the following year, the Hess and Abroms families regained control and continued the expansion of the Parisian chain. Hess opened nine new stores in 1992 and five more in 1994, taking the brand outside the Southeast to Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. By 1996, Parisian owned and operated 38 stores. That year, the Hess family sold the successful retail chain to department store giant Proffitt's, Inc., which retained the Parisian brand and its loyal customer base.
In 1998, Proffitt's purchased Saks Fifth Avenue and renamed the company Saks Incorporated. With the clout of the New York retailer behind it, Parisian's reputation soared even higher, as customers shopped for designer labels and high-end fashion lines alongside more moderately priced merchandise. The wide selection and range of merchandise continued to attract large numbers of shoppers.
Belk, Inc., another southern family-owned retail chain, purchased the company from Saks for $285 million in August 2006. Unlike
former owners, however, Belk chose to phase out the Parisian brand and renamed all of the Parisian stores with the Belk name.
Some elements of the 6,500-employee Parisian operation were incorporated into the Charlotte-based Belk home office, but many
jobs, particularly those at the Birmingham headquarters, were eliminated. Today, Belk is the nation's largest privately owned
department store company, with more than 300 stores in 16 states.
Born, Pete. "Parisian: $500 Million And Counting." Women's Wear Daily, February 12, 1993, p. 4.
Hess, Emil, and Donald Hess. Parisian, Inc. New York: Newcomen Society, 1986.
Kathy Campbell Bowers
Published September 24, 2008
Last updated July 11, 2011