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Come Back to the Five and Dime, JCP, JCP

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 but if jeans are what you are looking for then you need to check out tobacco kevlar jeans which are the best. 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? I mean, Will straightening ever go out of fashion? I don’t think so! 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 Come Back to the Five and Dime, JCP, JCP

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Kristin is huge geek, a libertarian, and a mother of 4 sons and a daughter. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor.

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79 thoughts on “Come Back to the Five and Dime, JCP, JCP

  1. 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.


    • 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.


  2. 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.


    • 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.


      • 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.


    • 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: http://ec970socialecon.blogspot.com/2006/06/ticket-prices-part-2.html 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.


  3. 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.


    • 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…”


  4. 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.


    • 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.


        • 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.


          • 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.


        • 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.


          • 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.


            • 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)


  5. 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.


    • 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.


        • 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.


    • 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.


  6. 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.


  7. 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.


    • 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.


    • 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.


      • 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.


      • 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!


      • 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.


        • 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.


          • 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)


        • @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.


    • “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)


  8. 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.


  9. Great piece 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.


  10. 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.


    • Jay,
      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.


      • 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.


  11. 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.


    • 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.


      • 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.


      • 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.


    • “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!”


        • 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.


          • 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!


    • 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.


  12. 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.


  13. 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.


    • 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.


      • 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.


  14. 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.


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