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?
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