My mother-in-law worked at JCPenney’s selling women’s shoes for 11 years. Family legend has it that she once sold a pair of shoes to Richard Gere…for his girlfriend, we assume….while he was in Port Townsend, Washington, filming An Officer and a Gentleman.
The Port Townsend JCPenney went out of business decades ago and the building still sits empty. Now, it seems, many more JCPenney’s are following suit. And while it’s easy to look at the rise of online shopping as the reason, I think the decline of Penney’s is actually the result of a much larger phenomenon.
Growing up in rural Washington State pre-Internet meant you had a limited choice for clothes shopping. Severely limited. There was Kmart, which sold terrible clothes back then, cheap and ugly. One of the worst epithets on the schoolyard was to imply someone’s clothes came from Kmart. Then there was Sears, which was nearly as bad. No one ever shopped there for anything other than snowshovels and ratchet sets – other than your grandma who’d invariably buy you a horrible Sears Christmas sweater and a pair of Toughskins. JCPenney’s was more expensive than Kmart and Sears, but not prohibitively so. The clothes were ok, not super trendy but ok, and affordable. Then the rich kids would drive with their parents to Seattle or downtown Spokane to Nordstrom or if they were REALLY lucky, Benetton or the Gap. Since I wasn’t rich, I shopped pretty much exclusively at Penney’s. The very idea of the Gap felt to me as exotic as Marrakech and unreachable as the surface of Mars.
You could buy pretty much everything you needed at Penney’s. Every stitch of clothes from underpants to coats, hats to socks. I bought makeup at Penney’s, jewelry at Penney’s, jeans and shoes and perfume and my hot rollers at Penney’s. My mom bought towels and baby clothes and even the furniture for our house there. I slept on a bed that came from Penney’s, on sheets that came from Penney’s. And all of us kids would wait excitedly for the Christmas toy catalog and then pore over it dreaming of all the Penney’s toys that Santa soon would be bringing down our chimneys.
For kids growing up in rural and small town America in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, Penney’s was where we got most of the stuff that we owned. It may have been mainly because we lacked options, but still, it was a store that most of us felt comfortable with and shopped in often. Penney’s was a big and important part of life in America in those days. At the company’s peak in the early 70’s there were over 2000 JCPenney stores across the country.
Now, things change and time passes and I grew up and got married to the son of the Richard Gere Shoe Seller. We were busy and poor and as a result we didn’t shop much, but eventually we wandered into Penney’s looking for a new sofa and we were shocked by the transformation that had occurred in only a few years’ time. No longer was it a mid-price department store. Penney’s had gone upscale. Everything was super expensive and super fancy. Arizona Jeans – you know, the jeans your parents bought you when they couldn’t afford Levis and it felt like you were dying inside but thank God you didn’t have to wear Grandma’s Toughskins – were 50 bucks!! It seemed Good Ol’ Jock Penney was no longer interested in doing business with local yokels like us. We only went back a handful of times over the years, and I think my husband possibly bought a work coat there once. Or maybe that was Sears, I can’t remember. I do remember going to Penney’s for a swimsuit once and the cheapest one was $72. It didn’t fit.
At the same time Penneys was undergoing its change of life, a few other changes were taking place in the retail market. The Internet, of course, was a biggie. But clothes shopping is NOT like buying other things online. I don’t really like buying clothes online. When you go clothes shopping, you want to be able to see the cut and the color and touch the material and check the seams to see if they’re sturdy or already starting to unravel. You want to be able to try a piece of clothing on and see how it fits and if it looks good on you. And in a store, you can rifle through a rack of clothes and stumble onto something awesome you didn’t even know you needed but suddenly cannot live without. None of those things happen with Internet shopping. I believe there will always be a nice healthy market niche for clothes shops with changing rooms and mirrors and racks of clothes to happily rummage through looking for unexpected finds. It’s an experience that can’t be duplicated online.
While JCPenney was attempting to remake itself in Nordstrom’s image, they had bigger problems on the horizon than online shopping. Stores like Target and Old Navy were nipping at Penney’s right flank, while discounters like TJ Maxx, Ross, and Burlington Coat Factory were nipping at them from the left. The market suddenly provided plentiful options for cheap, but stylish clothes on the one hand, and discounted designer clothes on the other. And if those two hands weren’t enough, simultaneously thrift stores also upgraded and became places even respectable folks could shop at, picking up barely-worn name-brand clothes for a fraction of the original price.
And in this retail climate, apparently the leadership of the JCPenney corporation sized up the marketplace and decided, “ Ya know, what we need to do is make our product MORE expensive.”
I assume they were doing this in an attempt to rebrand themselves as an upscale retailer. But what Penney’s doesn’t seem to understand is that they don’t have the cachet of Nordstrom or Macy’s or Saks or the Gap. They’re PENNEY’S! Too many people grew up with Penney’s as being the place you went because your parents were too broke to drive to Seattle. They couldn’t overcome that reputation no matter how many $100 duvet covers they tried to sell. What Penney’s had was something rather valuable in and of itself, a reputation among younger Baby Boomers and all GenXers as a place you could go to, you know, to get stuff you need at a reasonable price, like sofas and swimsuits and coats for work. Particularly the blue collar folk. People who grew up wealthy and shopping at Nordstrom don’t turn around and start shopping at Penney’s just because Penney’s suddenly decides they want to have rich people as their customers. But working class people who are already used to shopping at Penney’s would have still shopped at Penney’s if only they hadn’t been priced out of their Arizonas.
What might have happened if Penney’s had simply embraced their reputation with pride rather than trying to gussy themselves up? If they’d kept on being a solid-if-dull, midrange retailer that everyone could rely on? Like McDonald’s. No one goes to McDonald’s to get a filet mignon, they go there to get hamburgers that are uniform and predictable and that most people can afford. Now, of course McDonald’s did have that silly experiment with apples and salads but they didn’t completely change their image in order to try that. And they never charged $40 for a hamburger with arugula on top.
If Penney’s had kept doing what they did if not well, then adequately, they might be giving WalMart a considerable run for their money right now, catering to the many millions of blue collar people who don’t love Walmart but do gravitate towards that type of store. Only they’d prefer a store that was better organized than Walmart, cleaner, less cluttered, selling decent quality unbroken merchandise, with friendly employees available if you need help, and not inevitably sold out of 30% of everything you want to buy at any given time. Many’s the day I’ve walked into a Walmart and wanted desperately to be in a 1982 JCPenney’s. I would happily tack $25 onto my every shopping trip in this imaginary Penney’s store, just to not have to go to Walmart. I solemnly swear to the ghost of James Cash Penney himself, I’d shop there regularly. Unlike Walmart, where I only shop when forced, usually when I am absolutely, completely and totally out of children’s socks (sadly, this happens at least 57 times a year).
Unfortunately instead of embracing their sturdy, working class heritage and out Walmarting Walmart, a few years ago Penney’s decided to doubledown on their rich-people makeover. They hired Ron Johnson, former CEO of Target and Apple. He implemented changes that can only be described as bizarre. Like spending $12 million dollars installing Wifi https://www.innovativeretailtechnologies.com/doc/jc-penney-gives-free-wi-fi-the-axe-0001 but not improving the store’s website at the same time to capitalize upon the in-store Wifi. http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-how-ron-johnson-is-destroying-jc-penney-2012-10 And doing away with sales in favor of an “everyday fair price” http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2013/03/01/173203739/sales-are-like-drugs-what-happens-when-a-store-wants-customers-to-quit My mother-in-law, who still loves Penney’s, was furious about this idea. “Everyone KNOWS sales are when people buy the most!” she said, vehemently. As a committed bargain hunter, I must agree. I LOVE getting bargains on things and paying full price for anything, even if it’s “fair”, kind of spoils my fun. “Fair” pricing is for rich people and communists.
Additionally, in an attempt to appeal to younger, wealthier shoppers, Johnson brought in lots of big name designers to create special collections sold exclusively at Penney’s. But according to shoppers’ accounts, the designer boutiques were scattered randomly through the stores instead of grouped into logical departments like Women’s and Menswear, making them both impossible to find and leading to sexy lingerie being sold smackdab in the middle of the the children’s department. http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2013/03/jcpenney_ron_johnson_came_from_apple_to_reinvent_j_c_penney_and_ended_up.html The cost of the changes were so high most stores had to cut back on the one expense they could control – labor. Fewer salespeople were on staff, making it much harder to find someone to ring up your purchases. So, not only were they NOT out Walmarting Walmart, they started doing some of the things that drive people like me crazy about Walmart – making it difficult to find things in a disorganized store, and next-to-impossible to find clerks when you need them.
Ron Johnson did not last long at Penney’s. He was fired in 2013 after JCPenney experienced what is believed by some to be the worst quarter in retail history for any store, ever. http://www.businessinsider.com/jc-penney-worst-quarter-in-retail-history-2013-2
The problems remain, though, and in the news this week is that sadly, JCPenney will be closing an additional 140 stores across America. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2017/02/24/j-c-penney-to-close-up-to-140-stores/?utm_term=.4de1cd337f8e There are many who would point the finger at the Internet or at the misguided tenure of Ron Johnson as the reason why. But we could forgive Ron Johnson, that was a temporary lapse of reason. And as for the Internet, you can walk into any Walmart or Costco or Home Depot in America and they’re packed. At 9 o’clock on a Sunday night you have to wait in line at Home Depot. People still shop IRL, they don’t buy everything online, and what’s more, they don’t WANT to buy everything online. Who doesn’t have things that they need constantly and immediately that they don’t want to wait a week for? Who doesn’t like trying on a fitted skirt or pants in a dressing room before paying good money to buy them? What girl doesn’t like to occasionally get her hair done on Saturday afternoon and run out and buy a cute dress to go out that night? Who wants to order something big like a TV or a mattress online and pay an exorbitant shipping rate? This tale of horrible Internetz forcing old school retailers out of business doesn’t completely add up to me.
I believe the problems faced by JCPenny – and Sears and Macy’s too, for that matter, they’re also in huge trouble – are in part because in their mad rush to hopefully get the money of the rich, they’ve stopped serving the needs of their actual customers. Boring, plain, old, Lower Middle Class America. That’s who shopped at Penney’s 50 years ago and that’s who should be shopping at Penney’s today. It’s a huge demographic and they are the exact people few are trying to appeal to right now (well, maybe Trump). In fact, their business is being completely taken for granted while these stores try to compete for the Upper Middle Class dollar.
These stores abuse and shortchange their legitimate customer base to try and build their reputation among new “better” customers. When my husband purchased tools at Sears in the recent past they were absolute garbage, they broke immediately. My mom bought a fridge at Sears and they delivered the wrong color and wouldn’t take it back. My sister-in-law bought a riding lawn mower at Sears with a repair contract, it stopped working within a few weeks, and it took them months to fix it. JCPenney wants to sell me a bathing suit that doesn’t fit for $72 and it has women’s lingerie displays nestled amongst their children’s clothes, pleasing neither women desperately seeking lingerie, nor shopping mothers accompanied by perpetually-embarrassed prepubescent boys. I never even bothered to go into Macy’s. The one in our nearest city opened and closed before I ever had a reason to go there.
The management of these joints seem to be operating within some weird paradigm where they think they’re competing for customers who are too good to shop at their stores. They aren’t GOING to come to your store, guys. Other people would, if you’d sell us stuff that was of decent quality at a halfway affordable price. I work from home, I don’t need a business suit or a delicate silk shell to go under my tailored jacket. My husband doesn’t wear skinny jeans. Walmart isn’t selling me business suits or skinny jeans and thus providing them will not entice me. I need underwear that doesn’t fall apart the first time it encounters my butt – now THAT, Walmart is NOT selling me. I want to buy my husband a flannel shirt where the sleeves actually reach down further than his elbows, and Walmart is not selling us that, either. My children are wearing loincloths I fashioned from the scraps of their Walmart clothes that disintegrated upon first washing. I want my 1982 Penney’s back!!!
Hey, JCPenney – we’re HERE. Please sell us stuff. We want to buy it. Quit kissing up to those popular kids who are never going to like you and come back and sit with us at the stoner table with the gearheads and the kids in the FFA and the gals who still wear their hair like Michelle Duggar.
You’ll fit in just fine around here. We’re already all wearing Arizona Jeans.
Image by JeepersMedia