A Consumer’s Take on JCPenney (From the Generation Nobody’s Marketing To)

I used to love JCPenney. When I was a kid, I looked forward to outings with my mom and grandma when we would peruse racks and racks of timeless fashions. Penney’s (as we called it) had everything we needed to put together great outfits that lasted. The quality of these clothes seemed exceptional, the prices were attractive and the mannequin displays were outfitted smartly. Of course, at that age I didn’t notice those things. But my middle aged mom and grandma who made most of the spending decisions did.

Fast forward to when I became a mom. Penney’s was still the go-to place for my family. The fashions were still timeless, the displays were simple and smart, and the prices were accessible. I looked forward to the ease of department store shopping and appreciated JCPenney’s commitment to quality.

Then something happened. I can’t put my finger on exactly what went wrong, but suddenly the atmosphere in the stores felt less inviting. Loss Prevention employees became more visible, giving the impression of distrust – no, distain – for their customers. Prices started going up while product quality was going down. My JCPenney credit card was downgraded from Platinum, despite no change to the account number or credit limit. An omnipresent glut of advertising and coupons with fleeting expiration dates stuffed my mailbox. When I tried to use these coupons they either weren’t valid yet, had just expired or the list of disclaimers on the back made them useless on everything I actually wanted to buy. A salesperson once told me, “Well, you can use them to buy a pair of socks.” All I could think was, “Why? Walmart has socks at a fraction of the price.”

The takeaway: Shopping at JCPenney had become frustrating.

Then I noticed fewer and fewer outfits targeted to my age group and more and more discussion of marketing to “Millennials.” Someone in JCPenney’s marketing department glommed on to that advice with gusto, never stopping to consider which demographic was, historically, most loyal to them. And they didn’t consider two very important facts:

  1. Older Millennials – the doctors, lawyers and CEO’s – don’t shop off the rack
  2. Younger Millennials – the students – breeze through tiny mall shops while Instagramming or texting their friends, ignoring most store displays and missing even the most well-executed merchandising strategies (or they shop on their mom’s dime – that Gen X mom nobody’s catering to anymore).

One-stop department store shopping is a distinctly middle-age preference. In trying to capture today’s youth, Penney’s pushed their most affluent shopper, Generation-X, right out the door.

The takeaway: JCPenney is aimed at the wrong demographic.

Here are some helpful tips JCPenney needs to know about Generation X:

  1. We try before we buy
    1. We shop online as much as anyone else, but we do it for hardline products like water filter cartridges and books – things we don’t need to try on.
    2. We like to see colors in real time, unaffected by the subtle, but important, hue changes produced by a computer screen.
    3. We like to know beforehand if our butts look too big in this.
    4. We hate wasting time at the returns counter.
  2. We love discounts, but…
    1. We’re too busy to sift through a cacophony of coupons to assess starting dates vs. expiration dates vs. overlap vs. what days we have off to actually shop vs. largest discount percentage possible to calculate the exact set of circumstances that will give us the biggest bang for our buck and make it worth it to leave home to shop in your store.
    2. We eventually stop trying if every time we reach for our coupon, the damn thing’s expired…
    3. …or invalid on the products we wouldn’t normally buy, but are enticed to because we have the stupid coupon in the first place.
    4. We value predictability. We would be exponentially more likely to shop with you if we had access to a predictable discount to use at our convenience (i.e., 10% off when using a JCPenney’s credit card). But you can keep the Back-to-School coupons and Black Friday discounts. We love those!

In the absence of coupons, JCPenney’s prices are much too high. I’m sure that has to do with making up for what is lost through all their freebie coupons (and the outrageous marketing budget that must go with it), but since I’ve stopped even glancing at their mailers, I’m shopping off the inflated price tag which, more often than not, makes me walk right out the door.

The takeaway: JCPenney needs to normalize prices, drop the coupons and offer a flat 5-10% off when using the JCPenney credit card.

JCPenney store level salaries are way out of whack. This has nothing to do with shopping experience, but from a stockholder standpoint I have a problem with this. JCPenney pays an astounding salary to their store management teams. They also require a college degree. If Home Depot has taught Mr. Ellison anything, it should be that there is literally NO reason to require a college degree in retail management. All major business components – vision, strategy, planning, merchandising, buying, marketing, logistics, accounting, etc. – are all controlled by leaders at the corporate office. While most of these tasks are executed at store level, the high-level planning and scale that would necessitate a degree are absent in the day-to-day management of a department store. At the risk of over-simplifying, I would argue that the only skills a store-level retail manager might gain from having a degree are people management and stamina, both of which are either inherent at birth or can be gained through experience and training. Retail management is grueling and certainly deserves an appropriate wage, but opening up those jobs to folks with experience, in lieu of a degree, and dropping wages to more appropriate levels for the task will improve your bottom line.

The takeaway: Add money to the bottom line by normalizing wages and opening up store-level management jobs to a more diverse pool of candidates.

Having watched Home Depot’s rise to greatness under Bernie and Arthur, I was excited to see what Marvin Ellison was going to do for JCPenney. I had hoped Mr. Ellison would instill some excellent core values, focusing on customer service, depth and quality of product for the appropriate demographic and getting back to basics in pricing and shopping experience. Instead, what JCPenney changed was…appliances.

As a consumer, I’m waiting for Penney’s to appeal to me again. I let the stacks of coupons sit on the table in case the mood strikes to create a Gantt chart, but it doesn’t happen often. When it does, the coupons have already expired.

I miss having a place to go that caters to a sensible style. I miss matching this-to-that and accessorizing all in one place in an affordable, pleasing environment. I miss clothes that can hold up to more than one washing. I miss the old Penney’s.

I’ll come back with open arms, Mr. Ellison. Just make it worthwhile for me to do so.


Generation X


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