A few months ago, I walked into a J.C. Penney store for the first time in at least a decade. It's not that I studiously avoided it on purpose -- I just hadn't thought of it as a destination for anything other than baggy capri pants and heavy drapes. And it's not like I looked down my nose at the idea of bargain prices. After all, I'm big on Target. If I had to equate my style with any person, I'd say that I dress like a young Mary Tyler Moore.
So what changed my mind? A display of cropped pants that looked very Tory Burch, but were only $25. They were not on sale. That was how much they cost, full-price, without any discounts.
Of course, I snapped them up, along with an armload of solid three-quarter sleeve sweaters that came in at $15 a piece. Again, full-priced, no discounts. They are now my wardrobe staples.
So, I kept coming back. The store was clean, well-lit, organized and had plenty of clothes that a stylish shopper would covet. It was a far cry from the dark, cramped department store of yesteryear, which primarily featured disorganized masses of markdown racks filled with scratchy garments that even the most fashion-averse person would reject. I bought more crops, tops and accessories. I marked my calendar for the debut of the new home department (which promised Jonathan Adler and Conran at discount prices) and the Bijoux Bar (think: Kenneth Jay Lane and Kara Ross).
Then everything changed.
After their CEO resigned, a new ad campaign debuted which apologized for the very things that got me into the store. I read plenty of stories about how customers were actually angered by the idea of everyday low prices, stylish goods and even the store design. A commenter on J.C. Penney's Facebook page actually called the good stuff "sleezy." Spelling issues aside, I can't see how one can consider items like sweaters with three-quarter sleeves sleazy. Besides, the older brands (like Worthington and Arizona Jeans) seemed to still be there. The company was posting losses, so I understand the need to change for the sake of profitability. I just don't know why the rebrand didn't work in the first place.
The biggest issue I have with the backlash is the sheer lack of consumer education. A day after the ad campaign started, all the prices went up. Every item was re-stickered with a higher price. The Tory Burch-esque pants were now $36. A top went from $12 to $18. See below for the proof.
If they had been $36 and $18 in the first place, I would still think the items in question were bargains, of course. But when everyone is complaining about the rebranding price strategy as being a bad thing, when clearly the prices were lower, there's a problem. The existence of coupons -- one thing the masses demanded -- does not mean that the shopper is getting a good value.
I'd go so far as to say that "discounts" often ruin the shopping experience. It leads to higher prices, just for the sake of marking them down. We all know of a few stores where we will never pay full-price for any item. When everything is on a cycle of discounts, is anything really a bargain anymore?
But back to J.C. Penney. Is it really about the coupons? Or is it about a consumer base that is afraid of change? After all, J.C. Penney was seemingly the only department store without a designer diffusion line. Perhaps the outcry around the rebranding was the last stand of a consumer base who is not swayed by design.
Which I just can't understand, still.
Could I really be the only person who thinks that consistent pricing, contemporary styling and a clean display space are all good things?
Fashion editors are no strangers to malls and chain stores. Here's a list of our favorites.
"In high school my friends and I were all about Hollister and Abercrombie. If you didn't wear it you might as well have crawled in a hole and died. So I was pretty much stocked up on seagull and moose donned polo shirts, plaid shorts and skirts." - Nicole Guzzardi, Stylelist Home intern
"H&M was one of my go-tos for affordable basics and statement jewelry. But over recent months, I've grown really frustrated with the fast fashion retailer. From the wonky sizes to the flimsy materials, it's not even worth spending five dollars." -- Dana Oliver, HuffPost Beauty Editor
"Everyone in my high school bought flared black pants and satin button-downs there (it was the '90s), but I haven't bought anything there since 2001." - Jessica Misener, HuffPost Style editor (Getty photo)
"I used to think large thrift stores that sold really cheap clothing were great bargains... until I saw Forever 21 and H&M pieces that were selling for as much as they were in the real stores." -- Style intern
"Armani Exchange used to be the pinnacle of edgy apparel with a reasonably affordable tag. But somewhere down the line, the quality of their clothes started to decline and their designs looked pretty tacky." -- HuffPost Home Intern
"I used to get all of my baby tees there in 1995." - Shana Ecker, Stylelist Home editor (Getty photo)
"Benetton in the 90s! Big sweaters for everyone... Diesel for a regrettable moment in the early 00s, then realized I looked like a European tourist everywhere I went, so that was shelved. And I used to stock up on tanks at American Apparel in 2004-5, and now the store looks like the wardrobe department for A Different World." - Brie Dyas, Stylelist/Stylelist Home senior editor (Getty photo)
"I used to loooove Limited Too, until I realized that not everything is made better with "LTD2" logos strewn all over it. Also, I grew." - Ellie Krupnick, HuffPost Style Senior Editor (Courtesy photo)
"I thought it was cheap and quick, but it was still a waste of money because everything that I bought there was ruined after the first wash. The hem would become uneven or a tiny hole would appear." -- Renee Jacques, HuffPost Style Intern
"I used to shop at French Connection until I realized that all of the clothes are cut for American Girl Dolls." - Rebecca Adams, HuffPost Style associate editor
"I loved it then, but I haven't set foot in a Wet Seal in over a decade." - Christina Anderson, Senior Editor
"While I don't shop at any of these stores anymore, I always felt like Aeropostale was a wannabe Abercrombie & Fitch or Hollister. The styles never seemed to match up and it came across as tacky most times. However, I do remember liking their bathing suits. Now, not so much." -- Renee Jacques, Style Intern
"I used to go here for basics but there's far too much product on the floor, and its always a mess. I also find that many times, the material they use is of poor quality and falls apart after only a few washes."
In trading on Tuesday, department stores shares were relative laggards, down on the day by about 0.7%. Helping drag down the group were shares of JC Penney (JCP), down about 10.7% and shares of Companhia Brasileira (CBD) down about 2.4% on the day.
Follow Brie Dyas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BrieDyas