J.C. Penney's Real Problem Isn't 'No Coupons or Sales' After All

A mannequin stands as customers wait for the elevator at a J.C. Penney Co. store in the Queens borough of New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. Confidence among U.S. consumers jumped more than forecast in February as Americans adjusted to a higher payroll tax and signs of a recovering housing market spurred faith in the future. J.C. Penney Co. is scheduled to release earnings data on Feb. 27. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Mannequins display the store's new spring fashions at a J.C. Penney store in Queens, New York. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
J.C. Penney's disastrous sales plunge under CEO Ron Johnson has been widely attributed to his "fair and square" pricing strategy, which did away with the vast majority of its sales and coupons. But many shoppers say they've ditched the the retailer for an entirely different reason: They just don't like the clothes anymore.

Over the past few weeks, we've received dozens of emails from readers identifying themselves as former J.C. Penney (JCP) customers. And the vast majority of them said its new apparel offerings were the biggest reason they've stopped shopping there.

"I have been a customer of JCP for over 20 years. The only reason I still go there is because of the salon," writes Jacqueline Price. "I do not buy any merchandise in this store since they did away with all the lines I loved, such as St John's Bay [and] Gloria Vanderbilt."

Another reader, Kris Christensen, echoes the sentiment that the retailer is ditching the clothes she loves in favor of new collections that don't appeal to her.

"J.C. Penney was the last store to sell clothes for women that were reasonably priced and well made," writes Christensen. "If emptying out the stores of decent clothing and stocking them with the cheapest made rags possible is the great change he was talking about, he's finding out he was wrong."

We're guessing Johnson would bristle at the suggestion that J.C. Penney's new apparel collections are "the cheapest made rags possible." If anything, he's attempted to upscale the retailer by bringing in well-known brands like Martha Stewart Living and by dedicating floorspace to boutiques featuring the likes of Levi's and Izod.

But those fashion-forward brands apparently don't appeal to the disgruntled shoppers who wrote to us.

An Elderly Exodus

Interestingly, most of the readers who emailed DailyFinance are older; and these customers feel the new J.C. Penney is abandoning their demographic.

"Penney's is trying to attract a younger, hipper customer, but frankly its loyal customer base is older, heading into elderly," writes Katherine Troyer. "The company has dropped many of the brands and clothing styles favored by older people on a budget."

Another reader identified herself as a senior citizen and bemoaned that J.C. Penney "threw their loyal, mostly older customers out."

Yet another ex-customer wrote in to complain that the retailer is now dominated by "edgy styles only a 16-year-old can wear." She added that she'd taken her business to Sears (SHLD) and Kohl's (KSS).

A Critical Darling, a Popular Failure

We did get a few favorable opinions on the new apparel.

"I'm 56 and love the clothes," writes Meredith Porterfield. "They are hip, edgy and very affordable."

Meanwhile, the new direction has also met with approval in fashion-forward circles: Both Esquire and GQ gave positive coverage to the arrival of style icon Nick Wooster as new head of menswear.

And on a personal note, I checked out my local J.C. Penney recently and found that for the first time in my life, it looks like a store where I'd actually go shopping. The Levi's boutique presented an attractive array of denim choices, and I was impressed by the new shirts and ties from Stafford.

But then, I'm 27, so it's to be expected that I would dig the new-look JCP. Unfortunately, the retailer's plummeting sales suggest that it's losing older customers like Kris and Jacqueline a lot faster than it's winning over younger ones like me.

Menswear site Dappered recently used an interesting analogy to make this very point, floating the hypothetical situation of Miller ditching its usual beer in favor of IPAs and stouts brewed by world-renowned craft brewers.

In this hypothetical example, the loyal Miller fans would leave in droves, offended by the fancy new beer and by the suggestion that the beer they used to love was low-quality swill. And no matter how many new drinkers Miller gained from the switch, it wouldn't be enough to offset the loss of their former customer base.

"Meanwhile, there's a slight uptick in new customers giving the reworked line of beers a try ... but it's scattered support," writes the author. "Most of these potential customers already have allegiances to other breweries."

In trying to transform J.C. Penney into the Apple Store of apparel, Johnson has undoubtedly won over some new shoppers. But he apparently didn't realize how many of his established customers he would lose in the process.

In his latest earnings call, Johnson acknowledged that his radical new pricing strategy was a "big mistake," and he's already brought back sales and coupons. But a coupon isn't enough to get people to buy clothes they don't want.

Christine White tells us that she stopped going to J.C. Penney because she wasn't impressed by its new merchandise, but that she decided to give it another chance this past weekend after getting a couple of coupons online.

"I went there again on Saturday. I had received two Internet coupons and decided to try and find something," she tells us. "After about 45 minutes, I was only able to use one of the coupons because I couldn't find anything I liked enough to spend money on."

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

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Actually, I'm 22 and I couldn't even find anything there. I went in twice recently, about 2-3 months ago and then again roughly a month ago. I was SHOCKED I couldn't find anything I liked! Normally I would come out with a haul, but this time, everything was poorly made, thin, and ill picked. It was hard to coordinate things and in general I was just confused by what clothing they had selected. I think for most of their clothes, they are trying to be too modern on a "budget", and so it just comes across as tacky. Their older adult clothes (which I sometimes browse to find key items) are looking more matronly and untrendy. I know older ladies need nice clothing too, but they won't find it at JCP! As a mother as well as a young adult, I need attractive, but sensible clothing, and I can't find that. Sorry JCP, I've actually started sewing I'm so disappointed with what I find these days...and I've taken what business I do still give out to Target. They tend to have some nice things for around the same prices.

October 08 2013 at 2:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I would love to return to JCPenny's........just bring back my beloved Cabin Creek, no wrinkle, stain-free shirts in women's sizes.............and I will be there!

May 02 2013 at 6:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Troy McEady

I actually really enjoy being in JCP, more than I ever have. It's gone from "I wear Ked's and seasonal sweaters" to "I'm cool, hip and could easily be compared to H&M". Times are changing, and the older people who expect to walk in and see the kitten embroidered turtle necks their used to need to move on. My friends and I just fr JCP credit cards, which we never do, bc we were so taken back by the brands and styles. 1 word. Marchesa.

April 27 2013 at 1:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Troy McEady's comment

It is rude to think that all older women shop for clothes like that. You sound immature and silly. You should also use the spell check function, I had a hard time reading through all the rubble. It makes me ashamed that my generation is so senseless...

October 08 2013 at 3:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ask Me Again

I do not see how even a teenager with any taste would care
to buy the clothes in the store.
I used to fill up a cart with beautiful clothes and have
a great time shopping.. last two times I went there I
could not find a thing.Yeah, I went back again to be
sure..lol they canceled my credit card for non use..!!

April 09 2013 at 12:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
C Rope

My first experience with J C Penney's new pricing was when I was shopping for some clothes for my grandson. He wears size 4T and there was not much to chose from. One of my selections was a Carter's onesy and I had to do a double take. I thought I was buying a cheap knock off.

I recently decided to give the store another chance. I found a pair of women's slacks that looked great on the hanger. When I went to pay for the slacks the zipper was open so that only one layer of fabric was laying on the counter. I was shocked that I could see the white counter through the slacks. Not good value for the price.

After more than thirty years shopping at J C Penney's I'm done.

April 08 2013 at 9:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The clothing selection at JCP has gone way down hill. It used to have good quality selections from Cabin Creek, St johns Bay Bisou Bisou etc. that appeal to a broader base of customers, especially the working women. It appears they are now only trying to be "hip and fresh" which is ok for the Junior's Dept but working women over 40 need to have options. I've also noticed their shoe selections are awful. They need to get back more selections and better designers. I miss the old JCP,

April 08 2013 at 7:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The clothes at JC Penney are now HORRIBLE! I haven't bought a thing there in over a year, since they changed their strategies. Where are the traditional styles that women over 35 or so want to wear? I am sick of all the stores being aimed to teeny bopper customers! The quality, colors and styles are awful!

April 08 2013 at 7:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hi, that's me quoted in the article. Sorry, but the younger generation just do not know what fine quality clothing is. I'm not that old either. I'm sick of tank tops, everything in t-shirt material, hideous flowered/patterned blouses in mystery material and no shape to them. I like my clothes to fit proportionately too, not all askew. It's impossible to have one's own style these days.. I'm told people in many European countries wouldn't touch the junk we get from China in the U.S.

April 06 2013 at 2:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Kristin's comment

I know your comment is old, but I wouldn't doubt what you said is true about Europe. We have grown accustomed to accepting things as they come. I'm sorry. I find better fabric in fabric stores to make my clothes with. I refuse to wear that junk they are selling. I'm also not that old, just tired of being practically told I have to dress like that.

October 08 2013 at 3:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Samantha Scheffel

I LOVE the new JCPenneys! It's affordable for people on a budget like I am. I never have a hard time finding what I want or need there. I can spend $100 and get 4 pairs of shorts and 5 tank tops. Any other store that would cost me triple. In fact I'm going this week because I just found out they have $10 swimsuits. No one can beat the prices or quality, let alone the brands. I end up spending an hour in there only because I can't stop looking around at things I want. Older customers who complain they can't find what they want, it's because they have to appeal to largest amount of customers which is going to be 16-30 year olds. Anyone can argue with that but it's the truth. That's why the Juniors section has expanded so much. They have to compete with stores like Hollister and Abercrombie. Most parents who buy their teenagers clothes are going to want cheaper and now you can find the exact same clothing at Penneys for half the price. College kids and young adults who pay for their own clothes want affordable. I guarantee they will start to see an increase in sales for 16-30 year olds within the year.

April 02 2013 at 1:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

They DO still have some good deals... It's just that I can never find them anymore because they've separated every brand in the store. It takes me forever to find anything.
Instead of having all their pants in one area, now I have to make an entire day of it to search out and try on several brands to find one that fits. Now I run out of time usually before I find a fit.

March 21 2013 at 11:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply