JCPenney: The American Icon Goes Through a Big Change [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe] Feb17

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JCPenney: The American Icon Goes Through a Big Change [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]

We’ve all shopped at a JCPenney at one point in our lives just as our parents did. The department store has been around for over 110 years and now the entire chain is undergoing a major change!

Penney’s, as most of us call them, have anchored just about every mall built since the suburban population sprawl in the 50’s. The chain is well known for their clothes, makeup, and house wares; as much as they are known for their deep discount weekly sales.

The original JCPenney store in Kemmerer, Wyoming.

James Cash Penney opened his first store on April 14, 1902 in Kemmerer, Wyoming with help from two partners Guy Johnson and Thomas Callahan. The trio would open three more stores under The Golden Rule Store name, before the partnership was abandoned five years later.

Penny would gain control and change the name to J.C. Penney Co. The chain grew very quickly and in 1928 opened their 1,000th store with profits of more than one million dollars per year. The chain held on, while many other companies folded, during the Great Depression and World War II.

Most JC Penney Co. stores were open in downtown locations, but began to move with the invention of the Interstate Highway System.

After the war, as more American’s purchased cars, the population began to move out of downtowns and into the suburbs. High speed interstate freeways not only linked states with fast, and convenient roads, it also linked city workers with their new suburban homes. With this population sprawl came the shopping mall.

An older JCPenney's in Astoria, Oregon.

The shopping mall revolutionized the way Baby Boomers would shop.  They would no longer have to drive downtown, parallel park, feed a meter, and walk from store to store.  Now, everything they needed was under one roof; multiple stores, food courts, ample parking, entertainment and climate control. New malls popped up everywhere and Penney’s was on board.

JCPenney’s opened their first full blown mall department store at The Black Horse Pike Center in Audubon, New Jersey in 1961. (This location closed in the 80’s and is now a Wal-Mart.) They opened their second department store at the King of Prussia Center in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. (This location is still open and was incorporated into the massive King of Prussia Shopping Center, which is the largest enclosed mall in the eastern United States.)

By moving to the suburban shopping center, Penney’s new stores had massive amounts of space to carry more products they could not possibly fit in their smaller downtown locations. The chain began to sell appliances, sporting goods, and even groceries! Many of these mall stores also operated an in-store restaurant, photo center, and salon.  Some also had an out-parcel auto center.

I remember eating at the chain’s old Logan Valley Mall store in Altoona, Pennsylvania (with F&N’s Ryan Dixon). Located in the top back corner of the second level, the small restaurant featured a typical diner like menu. The food wasn’t bad and very low priced. This wasn’t a five star dining experience, but a little more than fast food. The restaurant probably had 30 patrons, the last time I was there and was decorated in Penny’s signage and matching store colors. It blended right in, as though it were another department. This location closed in 1994, after the mall rebuilt from a major fire that gutted half of the structure.

A modern JCPenney's shopping mall fascade with logo in use through 2011.

After the major chain stores moved to the malls, in many cases, their empty downtown stores were abandoned or turned into office space. This loss of retail had a devastating blow on many city business districts. Some of these mega-lots are still abandoned to this day.

In 1963, Penney’s officially introduced their catalog and opened catalog departments or kiosks in all stores. The catalog featured an even wider selection of items than could be found in the retail store. The shopper could have the goods shipped to their homes for a fee or to the store for free pickup.

All was going well until the economy stalled in 2008 and the chain was hit hard, just like everyone else.

Last year, Penney’s shot down their iconic catalog.  What was once big business was no more thanks to the internet and the rising costs of shipping merchandise.

But now in 2012, the company is throwing their whole department store model out the window, starting with a logo and name change to JCP.

Penney’s was well known for their deep discounts on sale items.  Every week, some special themed sale would knock as much as 75% off of the retail price.  On February 1st, they have eliminated these special sales and have introduced “Every Day” prices.  These new prices were basically what the previous discounted sales prices were, but now are available everyday.

“Monthly Value” prices now replace discount sales and these items are available at reduced rates for up to a month. They have also introduced “Best Price” offers on two Friday’s each month.

Last week, I paid a visit to the company’s flagship store at the Manhattan Mall in New York City. I had the privilege of being at the store for its opening day, so I’m familiar with their upscale, multi-floor layout.

A new, simplified JCP price tag.

While they still carry all of the same products as before, I immediately noticed the pricing.  Everything definitely is at their former sale prices.  A new price tag system is also now in place, with the old small tags tossed out, and new colorful price tags which present the price in a large, noticeable font.

Also, most prices are now straight up to the dollar. I didn’t see anything for sale that ended in change. The prices were $9, $12, $25, etc.  This new system made it very easy to know exactly how much I was going to spend.

Other stores should really take a look at JCPenney’s new pricing structure.  The company really did their homework on this new design. The prices are very easy to read and the shelves are very clearly marked.

Penney’s has more changes ahead with the addition of Martha Stewart mini-stores inside many of their current locations. These will be added by the end of next year.

THE 411

Name: JCPenney

What: department store chain

Founded: 1902

Number of locations: 1,106

Retail Website:

Customers ride the escalator at the JCPenney's flagship store in the Manhattan Mall, New York City.

JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS:  Will these low prices work? I think that they will. The stores are still carrying upscale and mid-tier brands and are as clean as ever.  I didn’t get the impression of a change to a discount store such as a Burlington Coat Factory or a dollar store. In this tough economy, people are looking to save a buck anyway they can. Penney’s seems to be on the right track to take advantage and make a win-win for shoppers.

Next time you’re at the mall, stop by and see the new pricing system. They’ve made it very easy to see that the prices have dropped. I just hope they haven’t dropped so low that the stores don’t make a profit. If they can keep shoppers coming in, they should be able to maintain their current quality standards.

If you’re ever near Kemmerer, Wyoming, the original store is still open and has been declared a historic landmark. The company’s largest store is at The Plaza Las Americas in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This four level store has 350,000 square feet of retail space.

For even more of a bargain, there are still 15 outlet stores located across the US, which have just been rebranded as JC’s 5 Star Outlet.

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Image credits: ferret111, jimmywayne, karathepirate, Sam Howzit, and idovermani