A Century of Shopping

By Michelle Keller | Photography courtesy of Lott Furniture, Neilson’s and Reed’s

The recipe for staying in business for over a century takes knowledge and great customer service with a dash of good luck. That winning combination has helped three Mississippi retailers survive two World Wars, the Great Depression, and an onslaught of online competitors to welcome new generations of shoppers.

In the age of the internet phenomena we communicate faster, work faster, and even shop faster. Among the things the internet can’t offer, though, is a warm, personal smile when you purchase Christmas gifts, housewares, or other items. The convenience of online or mall shopping can’t compare to the personal connections that these three Mississippi retailers have offered to their customers and communities for more than 100 years.

The folks at Neilson’s in Oxford say stability contributes to the achievement of their more than 150-years in operation. Founded in 1839 on the Historic Oxford Square, Neilson’s is reportedly the oldest store in the South.
“Our customers and our employees know that we are here to stay,” says Amanda Lewis Hyneman. She says that while the internet has changed the way people shop everywhere, some things remain the same.
“We live in a town that supports local businesses and promotes Oxford as a destination. We offer personalized service along with the ease of being able to see and feel what they are buying.”
Hyneman’s father, Will Lewis Jr., is still a very active part of the store. “My father is 82 and has been associated full-time with the store since 1967, and his father had been associated with the store since 1930,” says Hyneman.
Since its founding, Neilson’s has changed drastically with three store renovations, the last in 2016. The store’s square footage increased from 10,000-square-feet to 17,000 between 1971 and 1981. The merchandise has also changed. The store initially sold fabric by the bolt, along with dress and clothing patterns, and seamstress supplies. Keeping tradition alive and catering to a new generation is key for the family-owned business. 
“The Ole Miss students and alumni are a vital part of the community and our business, so we certainly carry items that they like.  We also make sure to carry items that our loyal local customers can rely on,” Hyneman explains.
The holiday season has always been a special time at Neilson’s. From decorating the 10-panel front window to changing merchandise inside to reflect the season, Hyneman says it’s always fun to turn the store upside down for the holidays.

Established in 1905 as a general dry goods store, Reed’s in historic downtown Tupelo wraps around three-quarters of a city block and is now a collection of four specialty stores under one roof: Men’s, Women’s, Kids’, Gifts & Books.
Founder R.W. Reed was known as an energetic, dynamic young man who always had “something going on.” He understood trends, and according to the company website, the store held America’s first “One-Week Day & Night Sale” in the 1920s, remaining open 24 hours a day for a week to drive business.
Family member and current assistant manager to the company’s bookstore and gift shop, Catherine Reed-Mize explains: “Since 1905, major styles and trends have come and gone and resurfaced yet again. Most recently, there has been a trend toward a more casual look in clothing and gifts for entertaining.”

To address those trends, Reed’s tries to bring those trends to customers, not only in merchandise but also in the shopping experience. For example, Reed’s also has an outdoor lifestyle store, called Core: Cycle and Outdoor, that includes a climbing wall, wake boards, bikes and bike repair. Other Reed’s locations include the Tupelo Barnes Crossing Mall and downtown Starkville.
The fourth quarter is always the busiest time at Reed’s. With gift wrapping and several holiday events and promotions, Reed-Mize says one of the highlights for Reed’s during the holidays is sponsoring the Downtown Christmas parade.
As for what Reed’s attributes such long-standing success, Reed-Mize says, “We feel that creating a unique experience for our customers is important. We try to stay ahead by looking at new trends and addressing the changes in retail. Giving back is important to us and we are heavily involved in our community.”

In 1917, Reuben Lott at age 20 opened a small furniture store on Front Street in Laurel, just across from the train depot. Initially selling primarily to nearby logging camps, Lott branched out over the state and fell right into the hub of regional commerce.
With no heirs, Lott eventually sold his stores to his employees in the 1970s. The stock percentages were determined by position and seniority, with the largest share going to Nellie Rowell, who began working at Lott Furniture in the 1940s. Nellie eventually bought out the other employees and worked at the store for a total of 58 years, before handing the reigns over to her children in 1983.
Today, Lott’s is in the hub of downtown Laurel’s resurgence. The store’s current owners, Rodney and Angie Rowell, open their doors for special events, such as the monthly “Wine & Design” with music, speakers, and workshops like flower arranging. While furniture is still the store’s mainstay, merchandise has expanded to include home décor, candles, gifts, and even a few clothing items promoting Laurel.
Keri Rowell – Nellie’s granddaughter – says serving the community is a “big deal” all year, but the holidays are extra special.
“We participate in all of the community events like Loblolly Festival, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Christmas Open House, December Downtown and more,” says Keri. “We love getting the store decorated and offering special Christmas decor for the home.”
One custom of Mr. Lott’s that has survived for a century is keeping records by hand. He believed personally writing a customer’s name built a relationship that shouldn’t be sacrificed for efficiency.
“For years, we’ve carried our own accounts the old-fashioned way – handwritten on paper,” says Keri. “In-house financing has always been the store’s bread and butter. We still have many accounts and are one of the only furniture stores around here to do it.”
The bookkeeping practices may be old-fashioned, but the owners have stepped boldly into the 21st century with social media. Lott Furniture Company has very active Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, often showcasing items seen on HGTV’s HomeTown program. Described on Instagram as “part museum, part furniture store” Lott Furniture has itself been featured on the HGTV series and thereby garnering fans from near and far.
But’s it’s the local customers and Mr. Lott’s original business model that have kept the store alive during hard times. “We’ve been able to survive on monthly payments from our customers when sales were slow,” explains Keri.
She adds that customers who have purchased goods all their adult lives along with their parents and grandparents, are the ones who have kept Lott’s Furniture alive for over 101 years.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.