The oldest department store in the South is still thriving after 173 years.
By Michael Harrelson, editor, HottyToddy.com
The Christmas season is in full swing, and for Oxonians, as well as Ole Miss alumni first introduced to the South’s oldest department store as students, the holidays are just not complete without a trip to Nielson’s Department Store on the Square.
A local retail institution, Neilson’s has evolved from being a basic commissary store serving the needs of working people in its early years to one that is now synonymous with style and chic among locals, football weekenders and the throngs that pack it during special events such as the annual Double Decker Festival.
For much of its history, since its founding by William Smith Neilson in 1839, the store has been a mainstay for the gifts and staples of every day living –– from clothing to housewares to the unique luxury goods that bring smiles to the faces of family and friends on Christmas morning.
The store has survived a Civil War, the Great Depression and the evolution of the automobile that made it possible for shoppers to travel to Memphis, Jackson and elsewhere to shop. Under the sole ownership of the Lewis family since 1964, Neilson’s has not only survived the advent of national and regional retailing, but has thrived in the highly competitive mercantile environment that has witnessed the demise of the overwhelming majority of independent, family-owned department stores.
As current president Will Lewis, Jr. readily acknowledges, the loyalty of Neilson’s customers –– from multiple generations of locals to the Greek set at the University who follow in the footsteps of their fathers, mothers and grandparents in buying the suits and glad rags that are an integral part of the social scene on campus –– is a big part of the store’s on-going success. Whole generations of families have relied on Neilson’s to be there at every stage of their lives –– from its bridal registry, its children’s and young adult departments, to its exclusive gifts and cosmetics.
Where else but Neilson’s would customers still find the same business philosophy in place –– Quality, Style and Dependable Service –– not to mention affordable price points ––that has governed it from the beginning.
Indeed, Lewis, who graduated from The University of Mississippi School of Law in 1962, says part of the charm of Neilson’s is the fact that it different.
“For Ole Miss graduates, we are a change from shopping centers,” Lewis says.
If the recent Black Friday retail start of the Christmas shopping season is any indication, Neilson’s is poised to post another successful holiday season in 2012.
“It was one of my best days,” Lewis says. “We were open extra hours, but the dollar volume was the best ever in store history.”
In the early days, when Lewis’ father, Will Lewis, Sr. ran the store, Will Jr. says Christmas Eve meant late store hours to accommodate the shoppers who traditionally did their shopping the night before Christmas. Typically, he says, the store would stay open until 9 p.m.
Now, though, he says the holiday shopping season is quite different. ‘Now, we close the doors at 4 o’clock on Christmas Eve,” he says, noting that the modern trends toward early shopping allow him and daughter Amanda Lewis Hyneman, the store’s buyer and merchandise manager, and the store’s 16 full-time employees to go home and enjoy Christmas with their families.
Christmas Not Christmas Without A Visit To Neilson’s
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