Come Back to the Five and Dime, JCP, JCP


Kristin Devine

Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of

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79 Responses

  1. fillyjonk fillyjonk says:

    One of the worst epithets on the schoolyard was to imply someone’s clothes came from Kmart

    Ouch. I remember that insult from schoolyard days. (I took a LOT of crap because my parents, being frugal, bought me a pair of Wrangler jeans – this being around 1981 or so when the designer jeans fad first hit, and hit hard. For part of seventh grade my nickname was “Wrangler,” said with the most snobby sneering intonation you can imagine. The thing is? Had we lived where I live now, Wranglers would have been at the very least acceptable, and more likely would brand me as a “rodeo chick,” and therefore, cool. But I grew up in a snobby elitist town).

    And yeah, I remember Penney’s as sort of the midrange store….though where I grew up, we also had O’Neil’s, which seemed like a cut above in the quality of what it sold (I don’t remember how prices compared; my parents mostly paid for my clothes until I was in college). Sears was also seen as “kinda okay” though generally maybe a little unhip. (O’Neil’s sadly, was engulfed by the Macy’s beast some years back and I can only assume the old O’Neil’s where I bought clothes as a kid are now closed-up Macy’s.)

    I also hate shopping for clothes online; I like to try stuff on before I buy and I don’t care how generous anyone’s refund policy is, it’s a PITA to have to box that “large” that is too large back up and drive out to the PO or the UPS store and send it back….

    Where I live now shopping is kind of woeful unless you go to the super-upscale store (I can’t afford it); otherwise you’re stuck with driving all over Creation because how how shopping areas are laid out – Kohl’s in one strip mall, Penney’s in another, Lane Bryant in yet a third, and the Dillard’s is way over in the dying mall I would normally never go to….

    I actually do most of my clothes shopping when I am up visiting my parents, where they still have a REAL mall with more than one store of a type in it. Not these silly glorified strip malls consisting of three or four “big box” stores where you then have to drive crosstown if you can’t find what you want.Report

    • I have also marveled at the Wrangler rennaissance. Worse than Wrangler, though, was Rustler.

      My jeans horror story was that my mom had gotten me 2 pairs of the dreaded Toughskins. Not only that, but one was green, and one was purple. In the 6th grade. I had one other pair of jeans and I wore them daily until everyone realized that I only had one pair of jeans and then teased me mercilessly about that. Still didn’t wear the Toughskins though.

      I recently had good luck with Maurice’s jeans online (they have a “short” option so if you’re short but not that thin, like me, a person can order the right size pants and “short” option so they actually fit) But I very, very rarely take the chance. It’s too much work sending it back.Report

      • Avatar Beth Lopez says:

        Love your article sweet daughter of mine and, so sorry about those Toughskins — I’ve always gone for color you know — LOL!Report

        • Avatar Road Scholar says:

          LOL. I’m sure all parents have some reason to say to their kids, “Yeah… sorry about that.”Report

          • Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

            I told my kids that our failure to bring them to Disney World was to provide them an opportunity to feel good as parents when they bring their children there. Win/win!Report

          • fillyjonk fillyjonk says:

            My mom said, sadly, on more than one occasion, “I raised you kids to be too nice.” (“Nice” = somewhat pacifistic, and generally deferential to authorities)

            She’s probably right. I’ve never been able to tell people who richly deserved it to “stuff it” or similar; I’m more prone to crying instead.Report

        • That’s ok Mom, it built character and you more than made up for it by providing me (and kiddos) lots of other clothes over the years, and of course being generally awesome. Thanks!Report

  2. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    A google search for Arizona Jeans shows you can get them for about 40 bucks at JCPenny.

    What do you remember Arizona Jeans costing in 1982? 20 dollars? If you run this through an inflation calculator, 20 dollars in 1982 is just over 50 dollars in 2017 dollars.

    People never really adjust for inflation when remembering the past. A girl from high school posted a pair of concert tickets from 1996 with a line like “Do you remember when concert tickets cost 25 dollars?” The band was the Violent Femmes. If you adjust for inflation, this comes to just under 40 dollars. It seems like Violent Femmes tickets in 2017 would cost around 40 dollars. I saw Sleater-Kinney on NYE for 69 dollars (this includes service charges) and SK is currently a much bigger and more popular band than the Violent Femmes.

    Interestingly, when I was growing up around NYC in the 1980s and 90s, the GAP was the great equalizer. The GAP was affordable enough, had enough sales, and their clothing was decent looking enough that almost everyone wore stuff from the GAP from the modestly off kids to the really rich kids. I find it odd to think of a time when the GAP was more desirable than Nordstrom because Nordstrom sells more expensive clothing than the GAP.

    As to the broader complaint, things change. I get what you are saying broadly but the role JC Penny had in your geographic locations has been taken over by other companies and any company can make a mishap. Sears and KMart are not doing well either. There are different options for midrange budgets now and the rise of on-line shopping makes it easier to get expensive brands at cheaper prices. I usually end up buying most of my jeans and pants on gilt with really good “discounts.” Yesterday I bought two pairs of jeans where the original retail price was close to 200 dollars, the jeans were discounted to 59 with an additional 20 percent off. This makes them around the price of the Arizona jeans you saw at JC Penny. A bit less.

    The jeans I bought were from this company:

    Now there are lots of interesting debates we can have here. We can debate whether these jeans were ever worth a retail price of nearly 200 dollars considering how easy it is to find discounted pairs on Gilt. Or whether the 200 dollar price point is merely a sign of branding and hyping. FWIW I found that my jeans lasted much longer when I started being able to get the stuff whose MSRP was generally higher.

    I have a reputation here (usually deserved) for being the coastal urban guy and also the guy who will defend spending money on clothing. There are clothing brands where the I think the expensive price is just a sign of branding and maybe former quality and then there are designers/brands where I think the price is worth it because the design is unique and quality is superior. Brands in this category for me include: Engineered Garments, 45rpm, Our Legacy, Paul Smith, Eidos, JW Brine, etc.

    But I generally don’t buy things at retail unless I think it is really special and/or likely to sell out quickly. The last time I did this was in 2011 with a wool CPO jacket. I don’t know what percentage of people buy really expensive clothing at full retail prices.Report

    • Arizona jeans used to cost $30. Levis were $35 (on sale). I know this as a fact since if I had the $5 my mom would let me make up the difference. This was in 1987-1988.

      When Arizona had gone up to $50 or more, it was not recently. This was only a few years later, 1992 or ’93. Again, this I know as fact since I had one small baby and wasn’t pregnant. (this is how I measure time) It wasn’t my perception, they made an executive decision at some point to go upscale. Remember, I have a “ringer” in my corner – a woman who worked there for 11 years – who agrees that Penney’s changed their price structure during that time.

      Levis were still $35.

      Anyone who’s bought clothes over the last 40 years has to acknowledge that there are way more options for midrange clothes than there used to be. It’s not inflation considering I can actually buy jeans at about 70 other places for LESS money than I could in 1988. My question is, in this retail climate, why would Penney’s decide that the solution to their problem was making their stuff more expensive?

      I think it’s probably too late, both Penney’s and Sears are goners.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Midrange is relative. In suburban NYC in the 1980s and 90s GAP was midrange. GAP is still the midrange option but also really suffering from what I’ve read. JCrew was popular for a while but had one or two bad seasons and is now suffering as well.

        I think there are lots of lower or midrange options. Zara, Uniqlo, American Apparrel, and H&M and Forever 21 were not around when I was a kid. Now these companies either off basics for cheap or they are in the fast fashion business where no designs come every few week at low prices. A lot of the fast fashion stuff is shoddily made but many people seem to like it because it is cheap and you can buy more for less. Fast fashion is apparently enough of a problem that there is a glut of clothing that is an environmental hazard and clogging up Goodwills around the nation.

        Levi’s always had a range of options from the cheap jeans to very expensive ones.

        There is a distinct kind of midrange that is connected to your childhood and this is missing from your analysis I think. I would say 35-60 dollars for a pair of jeans is mid-range.Report

    • Avatar Maribou says:

      @saul-degraw Femmes tickets usually go for about 100 dollars actually. Which it took me less than 2 minutes to verify online.

      There’s a pretty good analysis of why concert tickets are more expensive here: which includes some graphs showing how they’ve outpaced both general inflation and also the price of other kinds of event tickets (movies/theatre/sports).

      Unfortunately it’s based off an old (2005) paper but I expect if you did some more digging you could get more current info.

      Disproportionate inflation is a real thing, albeit one that’s only tangentially connected to the OP.Report

  3. Avatar Damon says:

    We never shopped at Pennys as a kid growing up. I don’t recall the local stores, but there were only 1 or 2. For a town of 4-5 thousand, you pretty much had to go somewhere else to shop if you wanted any kind of variety. That meant Portland. I remember when my peers would drive 2 hours to Portland to shop at Clackamas Town Center. Oh, you were in like flint if your parents went there. It was an event! If only because of the distance.Report

    • Haha Damon yes that’s exactly what I recall. Going to Riverpark Square in downtown Spokane was an event! And going to the mall in Seattle (which I only ever got to do twice) was like a transformative experience. I remember walking through Northgate Mall and thinking “when I grow up I will come to this mall and shop here, and here, and here…”Report

  4. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    Systemic phenomena have systemic causes.

    Growing up in my real hometown, a tiny… village? hamlet?… of about 200 souls by census in western Kansas in the 60’s, you could walk down the main drag — literally about a block long — and find two gas/service stations, a hardware store, the lumber yard, the barber shop, a small grocery store, the grain elevator/feed store, a grocery warehouse business, a road construction company, and something we called the “drugstore” that didn’t actually sell drugs but had a lunch counter and otherwise sold the kind of stuff you now find in a convenience store. It’s ALL gone now. Most of it was gone by the time I graduated high school actually. The proprietors died off, one by one, and no one took up the mantle.

    By the same token, my current hometown, a nearby county seat of about 3000, used to have a couple women’s clothing stores, a menswear store where Mom would buy my Sunday suit, and, yes, a J.C. Penney’s. Also, all gone. I would say at least half the store fronts are boarded up and what’s left is pretty desultory. We still have businesses of course but it’s definitely in decline and has been for quite some time. Any serious clothes shopping entails a 90 mile drive to Hays.

    This is about far more than some CEO making seemingly stupid decisions. Our JCP closed, I’m sure, for one simple reason. It wasn’t profitable or at least not enough to keep Wall Street happy. Whatever the root cause of that certainly isn’t unique to that company.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      And the same lamenting about the closing of local or localish businesses happens in cities all the time.

      Plenty of my liberal and lefty friends talk about the importance of shopping local to save a book store or some other business even if it means spending some more money than you would on Amazon or an on-line retailer.

      There is a whole blog dedicated to the old stores going away in NYC:

      Sometimes these local businesses close because landlords just jack up the rents. Sometimes there are other issues. My old neighborhood in Brooklyn was filled with row houses originally built in the 1800s and early 1900s. Around the 1930s, a lot of them became apartment buildings for working class people. Starting in the 1980s, families and young professionals began moving back to the area. A lot of the old apartment buildings were turned back into single family homes or single-family homes with an in-law apartment on the ground floor. This causes foot traffic to dry up and a lot of businesses are closing shop on the main drag because of this especially bars. This isn’t closing because of poverty but because of too much wealth ironically.

      But other businesses just close because the owners want to retire. The local bookstores in my old Brooklyn neighborhood were like this. The owners were in business for 35-40 something years and decided that they were just getting too old and wanted to retire.

      Other businesses fold because their owners are not good at keeping with the Times. This could be the story of Sears and JCPenny.

      Right after 9/11, Colson Whitehead had an essay on how NYC becomes frozen in amber at the moment you move into it as a young 20-something. You will always be able to see that NYC. This is true for me. I haven’t lived in NYC in over 8 years and I can still see NYC as it was circa 1998-2008 especially between 2005-2008. I wonder if this is universally true. IIRC Will Truman had a linky article on how people’s most intense memories form during the years 15-25.Report

      • Avatar Road Scholar says:

        Yeah, but at least you have something that came in to replace it. We’re just dying out here.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


          Perhaps. Sometimes landlords let properties go vacant for a long time because of a preferential tax treatment on vacant properties. I think it should be reversed but that it is too much for American public policy.

          And there was a long time, decades really, where a lot of cities and/or urban neighborhoods were left to neglect. Some like Detroit, Flint, Newark are still being neglected. Remember the famous “Ford to New York: Drop Dead” headline.

          My old Brooklyn neighborhood too a long time to revive. So did LeeEsq’s Brooklyn neighborhood. There were decades where both neighborhoods were associated with poverty and/or roughness. My San Francisco neighborhood was known as a neighborhood where you dared not tread for a long, long time even though it is only block’s away from some of the most iconic tourist things in SF.

          Even on Saturday while I was getting my coffee and breakfast thing at the largey bougie coffee place (but also the locally owned one that sells at reasonable prices and not the place that sells 6 dollar toast), I think there was probably a pimp taking photos of a woman who was probably a sex worker for potential clients half a block away. You can still get solicited by drug dealers and users, see homeless people, etc.

          So part of me thinks that this essay reads like a lot of special pleading.Report

          • Avatar Road Scholar says:

            Sometimes landlords let properties go vacant for a long time because of a preferential tax treatment on vacant properties. I think it should be reversed but that it is too much for American public policy.

            I’m a Georgist (or at least Geo-adjacent) so you’re preaching to the choir.

            [litany of city-specific problems] So part of me thinks that this essay reads like a lot of special pleading.

            Cities have problems and rural areas have problems. Sometimes these sets of problems are similar but often not. It’s not special pleading to examine one set without resorting to butwhataboutism.Report

          • Avatar LeeEsq says:

            The toast at the six dollar toast place is well worth the price.Report

        • re dying out here: Something I’ve found interesting is that in our local grocery stores, Safeway is able to offer competitive prices in our rural area due to their chain nature while the smaller locally owned store is much more expensive with much lower quality – their produce, for example, is terrible. So of course the Safeway is always packed and the local store isn’t.

          Another example of evil corporations driving mom and pop out of business, I guess.

          What I wonder is that given this, why don’t some of these chain stores decide to go BACK to rural America using their ability to buy in bulk and charge less than a mom and pop store can? Could they possibly end up making more money that way? Is it a niche they could exploit? If they could charge similar prices (like Safeway does) that they do in “Large City Megastore” why not go back to that little Port Townsend store and reopen it? They’d have much less competition than they do in Large City Megastore Mall and the overhead might be lower. And as for limited selection, that’s where the Internet comes in. You could buy anything online and pick it up in the store. Walmart already does this (quite badly, may I point out).

          While I get that this is all very complicated and that there are market forces at play that are too chaotic and unpredictable for any non-economist to understand, I do wonder how much of it is a simple lack of imagination.Report

          • Avatar Road Scholar says:

            There’s more than one “Safeway”. Our town of 3k up until a couple years ago had two stores. The one that closed was an IGA, which I gather stands for “Independent Grocers Association” or some such. Not a chain per se, but more of a cooperative branding and purchasing thing. Sort of like a franchise?

            I don’t have a particular beef with the store that is left but it would be nice to have some competition.Report

            • Yeah, we have IGA in one town and “Family Foods” in the other, which is another smallish chain in some little towns. I am ashamed to admit I often end up shopping at Safeway (I think this is Vons, back east??) It’s honestly not the expense as much as it is the quality of the produce and the selection.

              (for all my fancy talk, I’m just as bad as everyone else)Report

  5. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Good article. There was also the swerve towards more aggressive couponing – a downscale move – which Johnson stopped (and Forbes calls a mistake), but the main problem was the inconsistency within a single business cycle.

    Penny’s is also unique (as far a I can tell) in that it’s not (yet) part of a retail conglomerate, like Macy’s and Sears/Kmart. Which doesn’t give it as much financial cushion in a secular or cyclical downturn, but also doesn’t (probably) have the M&A debt overhead that M & SHLD are grappling with.

    (There’s one Sears left in my general vicinity. I went in there maybe a year or two ago looking for a shed. The store just seemed completely run down, with a totally dispirited staff, and displays of merchandise that ranged from lackluster to haphazard.)

    eta there’s now a Kohl’s sorta near me, and they seem alright.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordan says:

      Kohl’s has happily taken the market niche JCP once had. I swear I get a flyer every week for their “biggest sale ever!”Report

    • Yep, that’s our experience with Sears too. Couldn’t find anything and the whole place looks like a horror movie set in an abandoned mall – signs tipped over, flickering fluorescent lights, a mop in a bucket right in the middle of the floor.

      My husband occasionally bought work clothes there, but the last pair of boots he got disintegrated in only a couple months. He declared that to be the last straw.

      I’ve heard good things about Kohl’s too.Report

      • Avatar Road Scholar says:

        We do some store distribution for Sears and, yeah, they’re pretty sad now. A mere shell of their former selves. It’s pretty much just tools and appliances in most of them.Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

          What is sadder is that I will soon be in the market for a new range. A few years ago Sears would have been one of the first places I thought of for this sort of thing. Now? I am leery of the quality. I don’t have any specific reason for this, but it is all too easy for the owner of a respected brand to see the brand’s reputation as a short-term asset to be exploited as quickly as possible. Often this is store-specific. I won’t buy any non-trivial appliance from Walmart because it often has its own crappy versions of otherwise reputable brands. I just can’t help wondering if Sears has succumbed to this temptation yet. Safer to go to Lowes or Home Depot.Report

    • fillyjonk fillyjonk says:

      I used to like Kohl’s but after a few years of their women’s clothing re-running the worst of what I called “70s malaise colors” and a bad incident with what HAD to be a mis-marked blouse (there is no way an extra-large should not fit me, but at the time I ended up in tears because I was on my last nerve and just needed a plain white blouse, and there was exactly one style in the entire store), I haven’t really been back to them.

      I said I didn’t buy online but actually I have bought several loose-fitting dresses from Vermont Country Store and been pretty happy – the problem comes when it’s clothes that have to be bodyskimmming or something like jeans where there are different aspects to the fit (hip, waist, and inseam). Most of my jeans actually come from the farm store now; they’re cheaper and they have a wide range of sizes.Report

      • ah yes, I remember that horrible period of women’s fashion. No one ever looked good in mustard and burnt orange, people!!

        I would love it if there was a store called “Basics” that had white, off white, gray, and black shirts and pants in a variety of very plain styles.Report

  6. Avatar Kim says:

    Your poor people don’t have any money, and what money they’ve got is being grabbed by people a lot smarter than retailers. Even walmart is pushing towards the “nonworkingfamilies” because they’re the only ones with money.Report

  7. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    This post gives me so much nostalgia. First, I grew up in Birch Bay, which is a hop, skip and a jump from Port Townsend, if on the mainland. Second, I am likely older than you, and when we shopped for school clothes, we went into Bellingham and shopped at a store called The Golden Rule, which is a strange coincidence since JCP now seems to call itself The Golden Rule Store, as a slogan. But no, I’m not misremembering the name. It wasn’t Penny’s, it was The Golden Rule, and it had a pneumatic tube system for sending paperwork to the mezzanine when I was really little.

    The classy joint in town was The Bon Marche, or “The Bon” as my mom called it. You’d only go there for something small or something really special. I bet you remember them, though they, too, are gone now, having been assimilated by Macy’s.Report

    • Yes, the Bon Marche was the place I’d go straight to whenever I had 2 dimes to rub together. I didn’t mention it since it seemed fairly obscure – now you’re getting me nostalgic!

      In downtown Spokane they had a basement where all their sale merch was, and I’d save up my babysitting money to ride the bus for an hour and end up with one coveted Bon bargain basement item. I remember getting a lot of Madonna black rubber bracelets there.Report

  8. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    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.

    That store is called “Target.” My town has both. The Warmart is consistently more crowded. Partly it is more crowded because they stack crap in the aisles, but there really are more people in there, too. This isn’t about prices, or at least mostly isn’t. Target’s prices are slightly higher, but not by much, and my town is not at all poor enough that the difference in price explains this. It is about marketing. A similar phenomenon is how the local Olive Garden routinely has a line out the door of people waiting to get in. The two local northern Italian restaurants that are comparably price and have vastly superior food? You can walk right in and get a table. This is nice for me, but not an encouraging sign of my neighbors’ powers of discrimination.

    In other news, I find that clothing businesses are particularly prone to having a CEO with bright ideas inflicted on them. Land’s End had a great brand and a devoted following. The brand, however, was “well made but boring clothes sold at a moderate price.” This is a business model for the long haul, which is to say, counter to the modern American business zeitgeist. Also, it doesn’t give you an excuse to go hang out at high fashion events. So it was rebranded as expensive fashionable clothing, apparently without the “well made” part. The result is that once the old customer base figures out what has happened, it goes somewhere else. In the meantime the people who buy expensive fashionable clothing don’t have “Land” End!” spring to mind, and in any case there are lots of other businesses eager to sell them stuff.Report

    • I do like Target, but I feel like it is missing the quality in the furniture department and their clothes are a little on the “trendy” side, especially menswear.

      You’re so right about the restaurants. I hate that.

      Oh yes I’d forgotten about Lands’ End – yep I recall that too. I stopped shopping with them when the prices went way up. I used to get my kids’ coats from Lands’ End and I still have one that I used with my oldest son 25 years ago, that my youngest kid is wearing today.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      It is interesting how Target became the blue-state version of Walmart. There are at least two huge Targets in SF. There are no Wal-Marts. But Target’s heir is also the very liberal governor of MN and Target seems to keep up with social liberalism and responsibility. A lot of the big corporate brands seem compelled to more of a kind of vague liberalism in their messaging.

      As to Land’s End, there has been a craze (started by the Japanese) over the past few years for Heritage Brands and making fancy-expensive versions of classic American workwear. I admit to going for these aesthetic. Sometimes brands like Carhartt will collaborate with a higher end fashion company on a line of clothing. Land’s End probably went for this craze.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        There was an amusing essay a few years ago from the grandson of the founder of Madewell. The grandson was exploring how his grandfather’s company, that specialized in making men’s workwear, ended up as the brand name that produced sexy but comfortable clothing for young urban professional women. There was a gender flip, a class flip, and a sex appeal increase.

        Casual observation leads me to believe that when you buy a Heritage Brand’s name, the United States government allows you to get away with using their founding date to. Emeril Lagasse purchased the Delmonico’s name for his restaurant and advertises it as being founded at the same time as the real Delmonico’s despite having nothing to do with the original. This allows companies to present an image that they are older and more established than they actually are.Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

        My preference for Target isn’t political. The shopping experience is far superior to Walmart’s, if only because they don’t use the aisles as marketing displays. And while the men’s clothing isn’t great, it is marginally acceptable, which is not and never has been the case with Walmart. And, as I say elsethread, I don’t trust the quality of much of what Walmart sells, even if it is a name brand.

        I have experience with Walmart from the inside. I worked for them in the early 1990s, when they first expanded to the west coast. It was an interesting period for the company. Sam Walton was dead, but only recently. He seems to have been a genius good ol’ boy marketer, with a knack for adopting high tech inventory systems early, but not too early.. This explains much of their competitive advantage in that era.

        I had a supervisor who had been around in the Sam Walton who (a) was a very sensible person, and (b) revered Sam Walton.[1] But this was in the early post-Sam Walton era, and things were changing. The weird part was that we were strongly encouraged to read Walton’s book “Make in America” and equally strongly encouraged to not notice how the way things were run by that time often were pretty much the opposite of what he had in his book, with a strong trend of moving yet further away. It was a fascinating exercise in managerial cognitive dissonance. That supervisor I liked was the only one who didn’t pretend not to notice, at least in private conversation.

        [1] He was a great guy to work for. If he was going to screw me over that day, he would greet me with “Richard, I’m going to screw you over today.” Refreshing!Report

      • Avatar jason says:

        Re: Target being the blue state Walmart. LOL. I worked for a Target Distribution center in the ’90’s. They were working hard to be Walmartesque. My favorite anecdote was when a person at a meeting asked about the Walmart strategy of adding grocery stores. They traveling management dude (same that came to bust the unionizing attempt) said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” A year later they rolled out the Targets with grocery sections. They have poor labor policies and much of their stuff came in shipping containers (especially their “Greatland” brand which is now defunct, I think). The “get more pay less” logo on their trailers? That’s for employees.

        That said, I still prefer Target to Walmart.Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

          I think that Target as the blue state Walmart is largely cultural. Walmart came out of Arkansas, with an aggressively folksy image. In the early years they pushed “Made in the USA” goods, with the patriotic imaging you would expect. They dropped that for the sake of greater profitability, but it was a thing for quite some time.

          Target coming out of Minnesota had an entirely different image. Aggressively Arkansas folksiness is not appealing to the urban market. So Target was a better fit by default.

          But yeah, the idea that Target has progressive labor practices doesn’t hold up to even minimal scrutiny.Report

          • Avatar Lyle says:

            To boot Wal-Mart started and built stores in the smaller towns first, and when it ran out of good sites in the 100k size city area, then it finally moved to the big cities, whereas Target started out in the Big Cities (Recall Target comes from Dayton/Hudson department stores very much big city institutions)Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

          @richard-hershberger @jason

          By vague progressivism, I meant on stuff like LBGT rights and immigration, Target knows all the right dance steps. It is a very weak tea form of progressivism but in a country with large reactionary elements, I am going to say it works well enough for socially liberal but affluent costumers.Report

      • Avatar El Muneco says:

        Heh. There must be a difference since my area is comfortably supporting both a Wal-Mart and a Target, two blocks apart. Some sort of sort must be going in behind the scenes.Report

    • fillyjonk fillyjonk says:

      “warmart”? Freudian slip or intentional? Either way, it’s awesome.

      My objection to wal-mart is not political either; it’s that the one I have experience with is poorly run, usually dirty, poorly-stocked, and prone to carry a product I like for about six weeks and then abruptly drop it and replace it with a far worse brand. (They used to carry a brand of real-meat reduced-sodium sausages I loved; that freezer space is now given over to a Quorn product, which my allergist told me could possibly kill me. I can’t imagine they sell much Quorn)

      I’d rather go hungry for a day than shop at Wal-mart on a payday Friday.

      (I often refer to it as Voldemart. And yeah, it sucks, but in small towns sometimes it’s the only choice absent a long drive or waiting on something to be shipped to you.)

      And I used to love Land’s End but then they lost their way. I guess L.L. Bean is still halfway decent even if a lot of their stuff is made overseas (which makes me concerned about the qualities and corner-cutting)Report

  9. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Is it possible that the physical location of the stores impacted Penney’s transition? These are large department stores, so I imagine they’re much harder to open and close than a Gap. If the mall around the Penney’s becomes more upscale, they probably felt pressure to follow suit. Even if this didn’t happen to all of them, if it happened to enough, it could have shifted the entire brand.Report

    • Yes I do think that very well may be a big part of it, especially with the clothes. I think they just had a decision to make about what direction they were going to go, and picked what in hindsight was the less sustainable one.Report

  10. Avatar aaron david says:

    Great piece @kristin-devine you have really been on fire, which is nice.

    By the way, I was born in Pullman, but we shopped in Moscow and no I don’t remember where.Report

  11. Avatar Jaybird says:

    There are a handful of ways to stand out from the crowd:

    1. Offer the best Quality out of all of your competitors
    2. Offer the best Price out of all of your competitors
    3. Find some optimal balance of the above (“Value”, I think it’s called) while also providing the best atmosphere and have an ice cream store or a toy store or a food court or something

    Or there were. Once.

    Now? I have no idea how much the ‘tubes have janked up everything in that dynamic.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      A handful of ways to stand out from the crowd:
      1) Be What the Big Kids Do!
      2) Be what “everyone” does!
      3) Be utterly stupid, but maybe in a way that might maybe get someone some sex.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      I suppose that there’s a 1.5 of “Offer the best Social Status out of all of your competitors” (aka “Fashion”)…

      But that’s fickle.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        No, that’s called “Boys Will See You in this!” or “Look presentable, there are ladies present!”Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

        But that’s fickle.

        That’s the thing with marketing yourself to people who regard “trendy” as a compliment: It’s great precisely as long as the trend is to buy stuff from you. But the wheel will turn, and you will find yourself at the bottom wondering what the hell just happened.

        This is why I just shake my head when I see the ruination established brands with a loyal customer base that doesn’t think that “trendy” is a goal to aim for.Report

  12. Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

    I can remember as a child going through the Sears catalog each summer with my siblings and picking out a few new outfits for the coming school year. My mom would order them on layaway and have them paid off by the time the school year rolled around.


    This article brought to mind Dan Scotto’s country music essay of a couple weeks ago. He cited a number of tunes that lamented the passing of the rural main street. What irked me at the time, though I refrained from commenting until now, is his failure to mention what caused that passing. Stores don’t just go away on their own, people have to stop shopping there. Sure, some of that loss of customer base is due to depopulation, but it’s also due to those angry Trump voters hotfooting it out to Walmart in search of a bargain on some items of decidedly inferior quality.

    It’s almost as though the equation 2+2=4 has no meaning.

    Excuse my rant, but it’s just galling that America, which has a history of anti-intellectualism, has redefined the meaning of intellectual to mean anyone capable of creating a cogent train of thought.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      Cars. Those small towns each with a business district of one block served a radius of just a few miles. Traveling to the county seat was a fairly major operation, and you only did it occasionally. Then cars came along, and getting to the county seat was easy, and those businesses that served the local retail market withered away. Rural Maryland is strewn with semi-defunct towns like this. People still live there, often with fairly dense housing, but they are strictly bedroom communities. The church is still there, in large part because so is its graveyard and people get protective of their ancestors’ graves. If a slightly large town, it might still have a post office, though that is less true than it was a few years ago. Once you get up to the size of towns with real downtowns, those downtowns generally still have some retail activity, but nothing like they used to, and often with specialty shops rather than stores selling staple goods. For that we can blame the box stores, but not for the smaller towns.Report

      • Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

        I think this might hold true for the more densely populated eastern part of the country, but won’t hold true in the west.

        Anecdotally, I lived for a year in Chamberlain, SD, which had a fairly vibrant downtown. You could buy most anything needed for daily life there, and what you couldn’t you either ordered from the Penney’s catalog store in town, or drove to Mitchell or Pierre (both about an hour or so away by car) for. I just did a Google Streetview search of Main St. and it looks relatively prosperous, though some storefronts have changed, inevitably. Of course, the Silver Dollar Bar is still there! It looks at though Walmart has plopped itself down in those 2 towns, as well. I can’t say if a drive of that length makes the savings to be had there worthwhile. I guess internet sales would thrive in a town such as Chamberlain, so businesses will have to find a niche not already occupied, or try to be the internet stores on price, which seems unlikely.Report

      • fillyjonk fillyjonk says:

        Yeah, this is part of it. When I moved down here, my parents helped me move in, and we decided the first night we were going out to dinner. So we asked the apartment manager where she would recommend…..her recommendations were all chain restaurants 1/2 hour (one way) away….

        that’s the biggest thing I can’t get used to about living in what is essentially the rural West – no one thinks it’s a big deal to drive an hour’s round trip for even terribly ordinary restaurant food (one of the restaurants the manager recommended was Applebee’s.)

        (Things have not changed greatly in 15 years, except there is now an Applebee’s in my town but so far I haven’t driven the 7 or so minutes cross-town to eat there….)

        I just wish we had a decent large supermarket that was not wal-mart. But I seem to be in a minority there.Report

        • I had thought that rising gas prices might mitigate this, but it seems when there’s little in your town but empty storefronts, you just accept it as the cost of doing business and drive anyway. :/Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck says:

      “I hate it when monopoly business owners gouge unjust profits from the local shoppers due to simple lucky accidents of birth and geography!” (takes a breath) “I also hate it when Wal-Mart moves in and sucks the life out of a downtown by undercutting the local businesses!”Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Well you’re gonna need to ask God(ess?) for a third option.
        Hello it’s Amazon, did someone call me?Report

        • Avatar phoebesmother says:

          Apropos of Amazon, I’ll bring up an underserved population, those of us with mobility limitations. Amazon Prime was a genius move, cut down on shipping costs so us crips can have nice things without the hassle of shopping by foot. I’ll never abandon my slightly upscale supermarket because instead of 3 motorized carts they have 10 and an ethos of customer care, great customer service people. And generous handicapped parking rather than just a few; they’re always full in prime time so these policies pay off. Some business folks pay attention.Report

          • Avatar Kim says:

            Speaking of fun things for people with disabilities, Costco Business Center just rolled out delivery to non-businesses in select area codes (like ours!). Of course, just like Amazon Prime, we’re guinea pigs. (I may have mentioned a friend of mine is in logistics…)

            Try it out!Report

    • Interestingly, I find that many times it’s the rich rural dwellers who are the worst about driving to Nearest Big City. At least some poor rural folk don’t have reliable cars (or if they do, it’s only one, and husband takes that to work most days, speaking from personal experience here). If you have no car you have to get a ride from someone or walk if you live close enough; if your car is so-so you will risk a trip to town with it but not all the way to the city.

      So the local store is full of grannies and young women with kids in tow paying $10 for a thingy of Tylenol while the rich farmers and government workers have driven their 2016 pickups 2 hours to Costco and done their shopping for the next month.Report

  13. Avatar Lyle says:

    In discussing Sears one should recall that for a long time they were the at that time equivalent of Amazon, with a thick catalog. (big book). If you lived on a farm after the Parcel Post system came in in 1913. Then you could use the catalog, mail an order in and get it delivered to you farm by the postal service. Before 1913 you would have stopped by the train station to pick up express packages, on your day long journey into town with horse and wagon. Then in the 1920s Sears (and Wards) decided that due to slower growth in sales they needed to open stores. So plus or minus the turn around time. Sears and Amazon started out in the same business. Perhaps Sears should close all its stores and go back to its founding business.Report

  14. Avatar Swami says:

    If Walmart can do it cheaper and more locally than you, (and they can), and the expensive boutiques can do it with better style and cachet (and they can), and Amazon can make it easier AND cheaper (and they can) then what role or nitche are Sears and JCP even filling? They are being squeezed out of existence.

    As someone who spent 30 years in a similar old dinosaur firm* which was fighting off extinction from new entrants, I say good riddance.

    *. One of my final recommendations before leaving this dinosaur was that the company should use its actual and real narrow area of expertise to spin off a new entity without the overwhelming baggage of the old firm and brand. Tabula Rasa.Report

    • I don’t disagree, Swami, but I do think there’s a niche there that they could be capitalizing on, if only they weren’t misdiagnosing the problem so badly.

      It’s not so much that I care if they go out of business, it’s the lesson one can draw from why they’re going out of business that is intriguing to me.Report

      • Avatar Swami says:

        I think the assumption that there is a middle class, middle of the road strategy which is viable long term is a huge assumption. IOW, they tried to abandon the market because they realized it was not sustainable long term.Report

  15. Avatar Kaleberg says:

    You can’t ignore the fact that the bottom 50% of all Americans are poorer than they were 30 years ago. They might have been shopping at JC Penny and waiting for sales, but now they’re shopping at dollar stores and the like. For a lot of people, Walmart is aspirational. A lot of middle and lower level stores have taken the hit. I grew up solidly middle class, but my parents were Depression kids, so we never shopped at fancy places like Sears.Report