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 where we would shop racks and racks of timeless fashions. Penney’s had everything we needed to put together great outfits that lasted. The quality of the clothes was above average, the prices were low, and the displays were smart.

Of course, at that age, I didn’t notice those things, but my middle-aged mom who made 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 still affordable. 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 disdain for their customers. Prices went up while product quality went down. Credit cards were artificially downgraded by replacing Platinum with black unless cardholders spent at least $2,000 per year.

Coupons with fleeting expiration dates and too many exclusions were omnipresent in my mailbox. After attempting purchases in three departments, a salesperson finally told me I could use them to buy a pair of socks. Why I don’t know. 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 marketing to someone called “Millennials.” It seemed as if no one in the marketing department stopped to consider which demographic was, historically, most loyal to them.

And they missed 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 plan.

One-stop department store shopping is a distinctly middle-age preference. While 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, unedited by the subtle, but important, hue changes of a computer screen.
    3. We like to know if our butts look too big in something before we buy it.
    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 weigh starting dates, expiration dates, and overlap versus what days we have off to actually shop while taking advantage of the largest discount possible. We’re too busy 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 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.

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 he would instill some excellent core values focusing on customer service and product quality—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 usually 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, if they make it worthwhile.


Generation X


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