Does Anyone Have a Notion of What JC Penney Even Is Now?

Categories: Schutze

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I'm trying to think if there is a way the latest news about Plano-based JC Penney could be any more depressing. I was already pretty depressed when I read about the billion dollars in 2012 losses on a four billion dollar drop in sales this morning, and that was before I got to the story about the Martha Stewart lawsuit or the story about JCP board member Steven Ross dumping 10 million shares of JCP stock.

Just to cheer myself up, I had to go read a story about Lindsay Lohan declining Charlie Sheen's offer to serve as her rehab mentor. The thing about Lindsay Lohan/Charlie Sheen stories: At least you know they're not real people.

James Cash Penney has always been a real person at our house. My wife's pretty Aunt Fannie, the late belle, worked for "Mr. Penney," a man she knew and revered, all her life selling notions at the store in Waycross, Georgia. I always knew that, but this morning I had to call to the bedroom from my home work station: "What are notions, actually?"

penney portrait.jpg
James Cash Penney
Sewing supplies. Thread, needles, buttons and snaps for people who make their own clothes, as many working and middle class Americans used to do. Kind of hard to feature that now, isn't it, in an era when a pair of pants costs less than the fabric, zippers and thread would cost to make it? Not to mention that the cut-rate pair of pants and a pair with a fancy label all probably come out the same machines on the same floor of the same prison/child labor sweatshop in Asia.

JC Penney has been doing what with itself, again? Chief executive Ron Johnson has attempted to position the chain as an "everyday low prices" outlet made up entirely of prestigious mini-boutiques. So it's your typical bricks-and-mortar everyday low prices fancy boutique kind of a thing. And why is it that I can't think what that kind of a thing might be? Maybe it would help me if they positioned some cultural/psychological staff in white lab coats at the front door with pamphlets called, "What this is exactly."

I knew exactly what it was in the old days, because I knew Aunt Fannie. Even in her declining years when she was having trouble remembering who I was, she was all business and no nonsense. When we visited her where she lived with my wife's Aunt Eunice in Florida, I had to hide in the mornings. If she came across me reading the paper in the living room she would snatch it from me and use it as a switch.

"You rascal!" she said angrily. "Sitting around here like Tut! You get out here in that yard where you belong and pull those weeds!"

I did, actually, because there was no getting out of it.

When Penney moved to Plano in 1991, I was between newspaper jobs and did some freelance work for them. I mostly forget what. I do remember writing a speech for somebody. I don't think it was ever used.

They explained to me that they had all the wrong customers. Extensive market studies had revealed that their customers were all "pinchers," people who pinched the fabric to see how good it was and then bought or did not buy mainly on a basis of value for price. I bit my tongue. I could have told them that just based on Fannie, but, you know, the life of a freelance writer is one of monastic humility.

They wanted the new kind of consumer. The new kind were younger, hipper shoppers, suburban rather than small-town, greatly susceptible to advertising, who would pretty much spend all their money on everything they saw in ads and not worry about pinching things or looking for value especially. I thought to myself, "rascals." But I didn't say that.

They were looking for poor lost souls so hungry for identity and acceptance they would squander every cent they had to buy some sort of look or label that would earn them the respect they did not deserve. Ah, the American Dream! Sure, I could write a speech about that. I even remembered this same sort of thing from growing up in the capital of the American automobile industry.

There was a point in the 1970s when the car industry was taken over by Harvard MBA bean-counters who came up with a brilliant new idea for making more money: How about turning out crappier and crappier cars and just raising the prices? What could go wrong with that? As a freelancer at JC Penney, the possibly-going-wrong part was not my department. My goal was to turn in the copy and get paid.

I certainly am not saying that I know now what has gone wrong with JC Penney or American bricks-and-mortar retail generally. That's still way out of my department. No. All I am saying is that I don't get what JC Penney even is.

I know what Walmart is -- cheap and you can pinch stuff. I know what Brooks Brothers is -- expensive, more prestigious, kind of the same stuff you get at Walmart but no pinchy-pinchy. I even know what Best Buy is -- the People's Monopoly Ministry of Electronic Goods where you have to go whether you like it or not and the sales staff all look away from you with Post Office expressions.

But I don't know what JC Penney is. It was the store for pinchers. Then it was the store for suckers. So now it's the store for sucker-pinchers? Is there such a thing? I know what Fannie would tell them if she were still around, and we are all very sad she is not. You rascals get out there and pull some weeds! That could still happen.

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55 comments
Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

I couldn't find the fashion genius bar and left.  Went to the Montgomery Ward down the street for some notions.

WatchingSouthDetroit
WatchingSouthDetroit

It's not just their products - their service has gone down greatly.  Walked through a JCP last week after not being in one for a year.  Noticed many fewer sales people to help and half the check out counters that used to be there (longer lines and waiting time).

I stopped shopping at JCP when they hired all those kids as sales associates who knew nothing about products and couldn't care less.  I once asked questions about bedsheets and when her answers made no sense, she finally said, "That's what they told me to say". 

gollyrojer
gollyrojer

I remember JC Penney circa 1978. At that time it was considered a step up from Sears and Montgomery Ward. Actually, I can't recall seeing a JCP in quite a while. They used to be a staple of the huge malls; you knew you were in the right place if you saw their signature sign adorning an outside wall. And then came the internet...

Willie
Willie

JCP seems to be an amalgam of Sanger-Harris/Target/Kmart/Montgomery Ward/Abercrombie with a thin coating of some odd not-quite-pizzaz.  Their future does not look bright.  



bmarvel
bmarvel

Penneys started downhill after they got rid of those overhead trolley-things, the ones where the clerk put put the money and sales slip into a jar, attached it to a wheelie gizmo, yanked the cord and sent it zooming overhead to the office. I could watch those things for hours. 

observist
observist topcommenter

Funny Schutze mentioned Best Buy as a "monopoly".  They may be one of the next to go after JCP because they're struggling to compete with online retailers.  Electronics lend themselves to on-line purchase - easier to compare stats, no need to try on, usually not time-sensitive, etc.   People use Best Buy as a showroom then buy online.

http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/struggling-best-buy-narrows-losses-reports-no-buyout-bid/article_1d80a82a-52d8-566d-82c8-28044e752349.html


Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

I never shop at Penney's because they sell crap and have surly employees.

Daniel
Daniel

When I read she "worked in notions," I assumed Jim's Aunt Fannie was a floor trader in the Marketplace of Ideas. But, hey, sewing's cool.

observist
observist topcommenter

JCP wanted to stop hanging out with the dorky kids and start hanging out with the cool kids.  So, they alienated all the dorky kids but the cool kids still think they're dorky.  Now no one will hang out with them.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

JCP is in trouble. no, make that BIG trouble.

To clarify what you wrote Jim, they know who they are, but it is not what they want to be.

The consumer knows why they shop at JCP, and they are not accepting where the people in charge of JCP are leading them.

Everyday Low Prices is a great concept for the consumer, it is honest, it is straightforward. It works very well in many retail product channels.

Unfortunately for JCP, the space they occupy in the retail world doesn't use ELP, they utilize promotions. Mark it up to mark it down. See Macy's. Would you EVER pay full price at that store? Heck no, they have a sale every day of the year. That's just what Johnson wanted to stop. Unfortunately for Johnson (and JCP)the consumer who goes into a JCP likes it.

So where Johnson is trying to take the business is commendable, it is a better place. But what he failed to understand is JCP isn't Target with Target's allure, it certainly isn't Apple.

My prediction is this will not end well for either JCP or for Johnson.

oh, you can still get thos notions at Michaels and Jo Ann. It's just like other merchandise segments that one used to find at department store (like toys, electronics and auto parts). The specialty merchants took the business by way of price and selection.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

don't have time to read the article now.  But, JC Penny deserves to go under for moving into the Timbercreek development.  That poor creek and those beautiful trees were all destroyed for nothing.  They could have been preserved, the property developed differently.  It's a sin that I'm sure is repeated all over the country.  Stupid development is maddening, they don't know what's valuable.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

they are called pneumatic tubes. a variant can still be found in some drive thru's such as banks and drug stores.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@observist

Best Buy's problems are much more difficult to resolve than JCP. JCP's issues are self inflicted, and with a change in strategy they can be successful in bringing their core customer back. Best Buy's issues are with the products they sell, the consumers changing demand and  of how their merchandise is being sold (the world wide web...)

Look at BB business fundamentals: they have a declining store productivity as store sales decreased for about the last 10 qtrs, a decreasing net margin for the last 12 qtrs, products such as TVs and computers that in terms of units sold/year are at best stable and most are declining, and store footprints that are about 30% too big for the assortment they now carry (no more audio cds and video dvds for instance). They will now match any online price, which will cause the net margin to erode further. At the same time their operational costs are rising due to their physical stores overhead and the need for aggresive marketing.

to sum it up, yikes. the sky is indeed falling....

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@Ms. Katz

that basket contains about 9 out of every 10 stores in America....

bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

@scottindallas I still have mixed feelings about the old Timbercreek.  I lived there the last couple of years before it was torn down and the place was in decline.  It would have taken a serious investment to keep it going and I can understand why the owner would rather sell to a retail development group. 

That being said, the trees, squirrels, etc. was a beautiful counterbalance to the crackheads, thieves, gangbangers and street walkers in the neighborhood, making it a truly unique apartment complex.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

that "Stupid development" sure has a lot of customer's cars in its lot everyday....

Edward
Edward

@scottindallas I think you can blame Walmart for that debacle a lot more than JCPenney.

bmarvel
bmarvel

@mavdog No. The pneumatic tubes are like...subways. The things I'm talking about are more aerial trams.

kfries1
kfries1

@mavdog The last time I was at Best Buy (635 and Midway) was when I wanted a simple boom box under 50 bucks. The few they had on display were stocked at other stores or out of stock. Hmmm... So I decide to look at a mini-stereo system at 200 bucks. Same story except that the Allen store had it and could deliver it to the store in a week. OK, I'm really trying here, I look at the one for 450 bucks. That's at the Lancaster store and could be there in two weeks. Bloody hell. I went to the WalMart/Kmart (I forget what it was then) across Midway and find a killer boom box for 30 bucks. So now they send me mail offering a credit card for Best Buy with an annual fee and a credit limit of less than 500 bucks. They've screwed the pooch.

observist
observist topcommenter

@mavdog  Surly employees?  Have you ever shopped in Europe?

bmarvel
bmarvel

@mavdogYes, but are they parked there because that poor creek and those beautiful trees were all destroyed? I think not.

Daniel
Daniel

@mavdog You know where else had a lot of cars parked outside? Hitler's house.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@Edward @scottindallas Perhaps Trammel Crow more than all.  They "developed" the lot.  The lot, which was bisected by the creek was not a hindrance to development. 

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

@JimSX @scottindallas If you're gonna not write redundant articles, that is certainly a new stricture.   Some might argue that you have only a few stories all packaged differently.  You've returned to the concept of "accommodation" more than once.  Further, I don't think that one location is responsible for all JCPenny's woes, I just offends me.  I've sworn to never shop at any of those stores, though I pass them almost daily. 

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz @cheeseburger 

What?!?! Not SFA and Tiffany's?  And you claim to be from Brooklyn?

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@Ms. Katz

well, the dog sees things on a very level headed basis, while the cat on the other hand appears to have, shall I say, a very cock-eyed view of the world....

bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

@casiepierce @bealotcoolerifyoudid @scottindallas It did, part of it comes from when they built the bridge at Skillman and Eastridge.  Melody Lane became a dead end street, so unless you lived at the end of the block, you didn't go there.  Thi, seemed to really lower the crime.  I also lived at Timbercreek from 1999-2002, the crime there was a bit higher, but still lower than the surrounding neighborhood

G_David
G_David

@mavdog Are you somehow implying that the Whole Foods on Park Lane is a "pleasant environment"?  That whole development is just weird.  No wonder the aisles are so frequently empty.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@bmarvel 

the developer typically is looking to the bottom line, even those who speak of contributing to the community by their work are still motivated and driven by return.

the good ones have pride in the product and would add these amenities regardless, others will do the minimum. that is why good development codes are needed.

you're now getting into a discussion of property rights, and what is fair, reasonable and equitable in a city's mandates on what standards must be met by an owner who wants to improve their property.

I'm of the opinion that the community is able to demand whatever they want; as long as it is transparent and does not impose a burden on existing owners. that's not "socialist" at all.

it's a bit of the "broken glass" theory, a person is affected positively or negatively by the physical environment they live in. people will treat their property (and each other) with more respect if they have pride in their place.

bmarvel
bmarvel

@mavdog You assume that the reason a developer might want to provide some landscape amelioration is to attract the upscale shopper. That may be the reason -- to the developer. The reason for the rest of us -- citizens, neighbors, visitors and shoppers -- is that it's our environment. It's where we live and work, whether we draw a paycheck or drive by on the freeway or live somewhere down the road. A bleak or trashy development effects us all in dozens of ways, some measurable and some not. This is the justification, no matter how well or how badly conceived, behind all zoning, landscape codes, urban districts, home owners associations, mandated design criteria. This may strike some on this blog as alarmingly communitarian or even socialist. So much the worse for them. It's an ancient principle, enshrined in every culture, free-market or rigidly controlled.


mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@bmarvel

yes, the battle of optimimising aesthetics or function...

there is nothing worse than a sterile project with nothing but buildings and a concrete lot. however, it's not a question of preserving the trees as "it's more expensive", often the building location, the freight loading/truck ingress/egress conflict with where the trees are.

no local government in this area lacks a landscape requirement of at least 10%% of the site. many will push for 20%%. this requirement adds a bit to the development cost, it does increase the occupancy costs of the retailer as they are the ones who pay for the ongoing maintanence. those retailers who target a better income consumer know it is a necessary cost, the retailers who are focused on value/lowest price see it as unnecessary expense.

dollar general couldn't care less about "a pleasant environment" around their store, whole foods wouldn't operate a store without "a pleasant environment".

observist
observist topcommenter

@bmarvel"Providing a pleasant environment in which there are trees and other natural features is one of those"services" that modern shoppers have come to expect."

I think by "modern shoppers" you mean "rascals" whereas Wal*Mart shoppers are "pinchers".   I've never heard of Wal*Mart's business (or Target's for that matter) suffering due to a lack of landscaping.  Timbercreek is no Highland Park Village.

bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

Had the property been zoned retail at the time of the sale, then it would have commanded a higher price.  At the time of the sale it was zone multi-resident and in a state of decline in a high crime neighborhood.  The developers wouldn't just buy the land for retail unless they knew ahead of time they would be able to get the property rezoned after the sale.  Same as MO as the gas drilling. 

bmarvel
bmarvel

@mavdog "I'm for preservation, but at the same time we are living in an urban environment that needs places to provide these items." 

Having written about architecture for years I have witnessed numerous developments that were  created in harmony with the "natural state." Developers don't like to preserve trees and other natural features because it's more expensive. Bit it can be done if local jurisdictions or future customers demand it.

Providing a pleasant environment in which there are trees and other natural features is one of those"services" that modern shoppers have come to expect.

casiepierce
casiepierce

@mavdog WHAT??? How about that big-ass parking lot at Sam's? Or, what about the Calais Condos or the Pebbles? Timbercreek did NOT have a high crime problem like about 30 other far more dilapidated, run-down and drug infested apartments in Vickery Meadow. And I am still not sure how in the 21st century it was even legal to cannalize that creek. Flooding downstream has been worse as a result. And please tell me where, exactly, all those calpier inches of mature trees were mitigated? In fact, can someone- ANYONE- tell me what is in the reforestation fund?

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@edward

the old Steakley car lot is about 13 acres, it couldn't even handle the WalMart that is at Timbercreek.

What makes you think that the Timbercreek developer did not pay "fair market value" for the land they developed? If it was an arms length sale it was certainly "fair market value".

The rezoning process was all public and according to the process. It's hard to see how your claim of them being able to "slide in the back door" has any basis in fact.

Edward
Edward

@mavdog As if there aren't acres of empty/desolate properties within yards of this development! Look across the street at the huge empty property across from Target.

The issue with the destruction of that area doesn't have squat do to with high demand, etc. It had to do with property being rezoned because someone was powerful and got their way. It was cheaper for the developers to slide in the back door on Timbercreek than pay fair market value for other land that was already zoned correctly.

observist
observist topcommenter

@mavdog  The trees were "mitigated"?  That's like Schwartzkopf saying Iraqi troops were "attritted".

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@bmarvel

they are parked there because of high demand for goods and services. The creek is still there, just not in its natural state. the trees were all mitigated.

look, I'm for preservation, but at the same time we are living in an urban environment that needs places to provide these items. These retailers had no alternatives to locate and serve that market.

I was against the WalMart project at ledbetter because there was an alternative site right across the street on the NWQ that could accomodate the retail development and the clear cutting of the trees on the SWQ could be avoided.

_mm_
_mm_

@Daniel   It was obvious to non- basketball canines that you were being funny.  Keep up the good work.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

no harm, can't say I've never been guilty...

can understand some do not like the Timbercreek project. But to blame the retailers for seeing the opportunity and locating there makes no sense.

Daniel
Daniel

@mavdog Sorry 'bout that mav. I was being deliberately idiotic for yuks. Unsuccessfully. Well, successful at the idiotic part.

mavdog
mavdog topcommenter

@daniel

oh, that's analogous.

you know who else makes comments like that? the 5 year old kid who lives next door.

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