Magazine June 26, 2017, Issue

A Thought for Your Penneys

(Rick Wilking/Reuters)

The local Penneys store is closing. Or is it JCPenney? Or J. C. Penney’s? They’re all fine. You say “Penneys store” and almost anyone knows what you mean: a venerable brand that’s dissolving before our eyes like a sugar cube in a hot cup of water.

The water, by the way, was heated with a kettle bought on Amazon.

Big retail is swooning, but perhaps you don’t care. Sears? Major appliances and childhood memories of stiff jeans that felt like they were made out of plywood. Macy’s? Eh. Out-of-towner chain that ate the local store.

But losing a Penneys might feel different.

Some trace the company’s decline to a disastrous attempt to remake the store’s image in 2012. They brought in a guy from Apple. Some suspected he would reduce the stock to one white shirt that cost $195, one pair of gray socks, and perhaps earrings that would be incompatible with a bracelet you bought at Macy’s — and periodically they’d eliminate something you thought you needed, just as Apple ditched floppies and CD-ROM drives.

“No, we don’t carry underwear anymore.”

But — but I need underwear.

“Perhaps you do now. But we’re looking ahead.”

I’m pretty sure I’ll need underwear in the future.

“That’s what they said about spats.”

It wasn’t like that, as it turned out. They just eliminated sales. Here’s what Penneys used to do: One week, a shirt is full price but you get another for a dollar. The next week, two shirts for the price of one. The next week, one shirt is one-third off and the second is half off, with 10 percent off a tie if you hand the clerk your credit card with your left hand. It was like the promotions department was run by an old math teacher who couldn’t stop writing test questions.

Perhaps some people thought they were getting actual bargains. Maybe everyone knew that the price on the shirt had no intrinsic meaning and was there only to make you feel better about what you ended up paying. You have to admire the faith the new management had in people: Once the consumer is relieved of his role in this charade, he will depend on us for fair value and honest pricing!

People hated it.

Apparently the upscaling of some stores didn’t help, since the Apple Store aesthetic — empty as a European church — made the usual patrons feel as though the management wanted a hipper class of customers. The store went back to its old ways, but the damage was done.

So the analysis said. That can’t be right. Coke didn’t go bankrupt after it reversed course on New Coke. Of course Penneys faced pressure from online shopping, but that’s not the whole story. Its problems are like those of Kress, Kresge, Ben Franklin, W. T. Grant, and all the other brands that sank into the retail tar pits. It’s tired. Its time is done.

Before our local store closed, I went back to return a tie. The receipt was about a foot long and had a note about the Actual Return Amount, depending on what the sale conditions had been that hour. The store felt cluttered and careworn; the escalators clattered like the engines of a tramp steamer. When the clerk opened the register to return the cash, there was just a twenty, a ten, four fives, and some ones.

I said I was sorry the store was closing, and the clerk said “Thank you” and smiled. We chatted about the upcoming liquidation, how strange it would seem for everything to empty out without being replenished. She was a recent immigrant. This was a retail job. There would be others. The Gap in the mall was hiring, and it was nicer.

I was tempted to say that I shouldn’t miss this place, really — there’s been the smell of decline here for a long time. Every new slogan or logo looks like a futile attempt to forestall irrelevance. Every sloppy pile of unfolded T-shirts makes me think I should be over at Banana Republic, where teams of crisp, put-together youth make everything just so all the time.

But I grew up going to Penneys in downtown Fargo with my mom, and I remember the salmon-pink storefront with the white-and-black Penneys logo, the bustle of a back-to-school shopping trip, the strange terra incognita of women’s foundation garments, the mid-century signage. No one preened when wearing something from Penneys, but no one was ashamed, either.

In the early ’70s, a mall opened on the outskirts of Fargo, and downtown died. All the big stores moved. The downtown store was razed, as if it were Carthage and the earth had to be salted; green grass grew on the plot, and nothing’s been built there since.

For generations of Fargoans, that veldt will always be the place where Penneys was. The store I visited the other day will be turned into a health club after James Cash Penney’s work is done. Pity. The Penneys door was the one I used to enter the mall, because the parking lot always had spaces. I usually went right through the store without stopping, on my way to the Apple Store.

Which, of course, will be there forever. I mean, it’s Apple. It’s the biggest brand in the world, and they just built a huge new HQ.

I’ll bet they open a store in the Woolworth Building in New York someday. It’s an awesome skyscraper. Anyone know what it was named for?

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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