Having grown up the middle child of Greatest Generation parents, I have two distinct early memories of JCPenney, the once venerable department store chain. One involves my mother, who had been raised on a Panhandle farm as one of eight children. She bought all our school clothes at our local Penney’s, which sold blue jeans that looked similar to Levi’s—the gold standard at the time—except for a leather patch on the back pocket that was branded with the telltale name Lee, a cheaper jean of lesser quality. Shallow as it seems now, I remember how embarrassed I was showing up at school wearing Lee’s when all the cool kids were sporting Levi’s.
My other memory of the store recalls my father, an Arkansas sharecropper’s son with an eighth-grade education who managed retail lumberyards for a living. Once, when I asked him where he’d bought a new suit, Dad squared his shoulders back and proudly proclaimed, “Penney’s is my store!”
Fast-forward to 2021, and JCPenney still sells Lee jeans, but it’s a sure bet that there are many fewer consumers who would call Penney’s “my store.” The Plano-based company—founded in 1902 by James Cash Penney in Kemmerer, Wyoming—is a far cry from what it once was: Middle America’s favored shopping destination for sensibly priced women’s and men’s clothing, children’s wear, jewelry, cosmetics, and home goods like dishes and curtains.
These days JCPenney has fewer than 700 stores, down from a peak of about 2,000 in 1973 and about 1,100 as recently as a decade ago. It once boasted more than 150,000 employees, but now has just 60,000. Annual sales have plummeted in recent years, from nearly $20 billion in 2006 to roughly half that in 2019. In December, Penney’s even vacated its 1.2 million-square-foot corporate headquarters in Plano’s Legacy Business Park, 32 years after relocating to the Dallas suburb from New York. It had sold its sprawling corporate campus in late 2016 for more than $400 million, though it had continued to lease a portion of the headquarters building from the new owners.
Further hobbled last year by the coronavirus pandemic, and straining under nearly $5 billion in debt, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last May in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas. Six months later, it struck a deal to emerge from the proceedings with two new owners. Shopping mall landlords Simon Property Group and Brookfield Property Partners jointly agreed to buy its surviving retail operations for $1.75 billion in cash and debt. Separately, a group of its lenders forgave some of the debt in exchange for a chunk of its real estate assets, walking away with 160 of its stores and six distribution centers.
In December, the new owners announced that Jill Soltau, Penney’s CEO since 2018 and its first female chief executive, would leave the company, to be replaced on an interim basis by Stanley Sashoua, Simon’s chief investment officer. In their search for a permanent CEO, the new owners said, they would look for an executive who is “focused on modern retail.” But what would “modern retail” look like at JCPenney? The store seemingly tried that route a decade ago, bringing in a hip ex-Apple executive to oversee a revolutionary makeover. The results were disastrous. The better question might be, is it even possible to salvage the 119-year-old company in today’s age of quick, convenient, relatively inexpensive online shopping? Or, like other iconic, defunct retailers including Marshall Field’s, Montgomery Ward, and F.W. Woolworth, has its time simply come and gone?
The lockdowns and economic uncertainty introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic led to a year-over-year drop of roughly 27 percent in total retail sales of clothing and accessories in 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But even aside from that nationwide downturn, Penney’s faces its own substantial headwinds in any bid it undertakes to become a “modern” retailer.
Consumers who once favored department stores for their variety have turned increasingly in recent years to discount chains like Ross, Marshalls, and TJ Maxx, and brands themselves are selling directly to customers of all ages online. “The entire department-store sector has been on a downward slide since 9/11,” says Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester. “JCPenney is not a value destination like Walmart and Target, nor is it luxury like Neiman Marcus or Saks. It’s in this very middle lane where there are so many substitutes.”
Most Penney stores are in suburban malls, which are under further pressure from pandemic-induced store closings and the rise of online shopping. About 160 of the remaining JCPenney stores are anchor tenants in malls operated by Simon and Brookfield, leading analysts to surmise that the new owners snapped up the chain to help prevent empty spaces in their properties. (Simon and Brookfield did not respond to multiple interview requests, and a Penney spokesperson declined to make any of the company’s leadership available for an interview.)
External pressures aside, much of the company’s current troubles can be traced to late 2011. That’s when Myron “Mike” Ullman III, who’d been the chain’s CEO since 2004, was persuaded to step aside in favor of Ron Johnson, a former executive at Target and Apple who’d designed and run Apple’s successful retail stores. Urged on by activist investors like Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital Management, Johnson set out to jump-start the department store with a radical transformation that would appeal to new, more affluent customers.
Among other changes, Johnson began to implement a so-called store-within-a-store concept, with up to one hundred small, branded-merchandise boutiques, plus a “town square” gathering space where you could grab a coffee or catch a fashion show, inside each Penney’s location. He targeted higher-end customers in the home department by introducing pricey offerings such as a $3,000 Jonathan Adler couch. Perhaps most significantly, he also put a stop to the use of most sales, discount coupons, and continual markdowns in favor of “fair and square” everyday low prices—which were essentially the old sale prices.
The problem was JCPenney customers were accustomed to, and wanted, sales, discounts, and continuous markdowns. They didn’t understand the abrupt change, and as a result, they abandoned the stores en masse. Within seventeen months, Johnson was out. During his stint in the corner office, Penney’s overall annual sales dropped by a whopping 25 percent, its internet sales plunged by 33 percent, and an estimated 20,000 employees were let go.
Ullman was brought back to reverse course and stop the bleeding, which he did. But the company has never recovered from Johnson’s ill-fated tenure. Penney’s customers “either disappeared, or went to Walmart, Target, or Amazon,” Kodali says. “It was very hard to reacquire those customers, because it was a very abrupt falloff. Once you have that abrupt falloff, it’s really hard to recover, versus if it had been a slower slide down.”
When I interviewed Ullman at a luncheon forum for Dallas businesspeople in 2015, he explained that Penney’s had typically served a “very diverse customer segment that’s very hard-working. I facetiously say that our customer has too little time, too little money, and two little kids. She needs JCPenney.”
I asked whether his return to Penney’s had been hard and stressful. “No!” he replied. “Hard and stressful is when you’re building something that people don’t like. Satisfying is when you’re fixing some stupid mistakes that somebody else made.” As for what he’d learned from Johnson’s stint, Ullman added, “I would say the lessons are, ‘Know your customer’ [and] ‘Don’t let go of buyer number one until you have buyer number two.’”
JCPenney has had two CEOs since Ullman—former Home Depot executive vice president Marvin Ellison, who held the job from 2015 to 2018, and Soltau, a former chief executive at Jo-Ann Stores. While neither was able to restore the department store’s revenue to pre-Johnson levels, Soltau claimed her “renewal” strategy, including a focus on e-commerce, was making significant progress before her exit late last year.
It’s unclear whether she left the company voluntarily or was fired. However, “the acquiring group I don’t believe wanted her to remain,” says Ed Fox, a marketing professor and the W.R. and Judy Howell Director at the JCPenney Center for Retail Excellence at Southern Methodist University. “I don’t think she was ever going to stay on.” (Penney endowed the SMU retail center in the early aughts and remains a donor, but Fox’s views are his own.)
Fox and others say Penney once excelled at online sales, which are now so crucial for stores of every stripe. In 1994, it became one of the first retailers to launch an e-commerce website, capitalizing in part on its then-robust catalog business. Digital sales hit $1 billion in 2006 and grew to about $1.5 billion by 2011. But then Johnson de-emphasized the online component in favor of revamping the physical stores, stopping the e-commerce momentum in its tracks.
Recently “they’ve been trying to do what they’d done before [only] more effectively—reduce costs and increase efficiency—and that’s not a growth strategy,” Fox says. “They really have not had a growth strategy since Ron Johnson took over. It [has been] a stay-in-the-game strategy.”
Now, the SMU professor adds, Penney needs “real breakthrough ideas,” along with the will to “innovate their way out of their bad position.” As an example of retail innovation, Fox points to Dallas-based Neighborhood Goods, a self-described “new type of department store” where cutting-edge brands sell their merchandise digitally and on a rotating basis in a large storefront space. It’s a “department store as a showroom,” Fox says, and an example of the type of change that Penney needs. “Changing the business model is a risk, but I think it’s a risk whose time has come,” he says. “They have to do something fundamentally different.”
Fox and Herb Weitzman, the founder of Weitzman, a Dallas-based retail real estate services company, believe that Penney has sufficient brand equity to continue on in some manner. “Penney’s definitely has a place, because they still have such a good name,” Weitzman says. He thinks the chain should refocus on its “unique strength in home fashion”—sheets, pillowcases, towels, and the like—because homebuilding and home-buying remain strong despite the pandemic.
“Penney’s biggest weakness is just the intense competition,” says Weitzman, whose firm has represented the company as a tenant and operates shopping centers in Denton and Pearland where the store is an anchor. “They need to win back customers who went to Macy’s or TJ Maxx and Marshalls, Kohl’s, Burlington, and Ross, and Backstage, Target, Walmart, and even Amazon. Those guys are fearless.”
Kodali, the retail analyst at Forrester, has a different, gloomier view. JCPenney “is not a company that has a great future ahead of it,” she says. The acquisition by Simon and Brookfield is “essentially milking what is left of the assets that are there—and that’s primarily brand recognition and the fact that it has a physical presence” in B and C class malls, she says. (B malls have been likened to “blue-collar” versions of high-end malls, generating fewer dollars per square foot, while C malls by definition are struggling, with more vacancies and the lowest rental rates.)
The Penney acquisition and similar retail transactions are “kind of keeping these businesses alive until the pandemic passes, and then hopefully figuring out a plan B, whatever it is—maybe converting the space into an Amazon warehouse,” Kodali says. “They’d have to buy up the whole mall and get the local approvals if they want to convert these spaces, these B and C malls that are not generating very much.”
In Kodali’s view, Penney is enjoying “an extension of life support” now, with no realistic path forward. “I think probably at this point it’s time to just retire the brand,” she says. “I’m sure the employees will miss it, but it’s past its prime, and it seems like it’s inhibiting the B and C malls from the redevelopment that is long overdue.”
If she’s right, the store my parents favored may soon become a fading nostalgic memory, like Penney’s Marathon fedoras, Hunt Club sweaters, and Big Mac work shirts. But I still won’t miss those jeans.