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J.C. Penney Turns to Boomer Moms for a Lifeline

J.C. Penney is in flux. And not just in the same way that its peers in the department store space are in flux.

The retailer has the added challenge of being in between CEOs, swinging between target consumer demographics, and in conflict between billing itself as a soft goods resource and a hard goods go-to. The identity crisis has executives at the company returning to a familiar and once loyal, demographic: older women with children.

Under the direction of Marvin Ellison, the company’s former chief executive who recently exited to join Lowe’s, JCP actively pursued the home category. The strategy was based on a few things. First, Ellison’s roots were in home improvement, having joined the company from Home Depot. Second, the imminent demise of Sears presented the retailer with an opportunity, and third, 70 percent of JCP shoppers are homeowners.

In January, the department store announced plans to have 600 appliance showrooms along with the roll out of home services like HVAC, bathroom remodels and blinds installation.

Now with Ellison out, the company told The Wall Street Journal it’s too soon to know whether it will continue down this path. “The challenge is to reinvent, but you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” chairman Ronald Tysoe told the publication. “To some extent, we did that.”

Meanwhile, the retailer continued to struggle with women’s apparel, which accounts for 22 percent of its merchandise mix, according to the JCP website. In the company’s earnings call in March, Ellison said it was “essential” for it to figure out how to turn things around in this arena, given the category’s high margins. As a result, Penneys has committed to chasing the active category, an area in which it has been late to the game.

Additionally, the company has attempted to gain share with younger shoppers, a move it now says hasn’t worked as planned. In 2015, it announced the rollout of Belle & Sky, which was positioned as a direct competitor to fast fashion firms, and in 2017, the company announced the launch of the Libby Edelman collection.

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“We did lose our way,” Mike Robbins, Penney’s executive vice president of supply chain, told the Wall Street Journal, adding the shift to a younger consumer “took our eye off our core customer.”

Ultimately, Penney’s core consumer—moms in their 50s and 60s—weren’t interested in the new assortment, and neither were younger consumers they were trying to attract.

Crystal Ibetoh, a millennial mom of two young children, considers JCP to be a “decent” backup when she can’t find what she’s looking for at her favorites, which include H&M, Kohl’s and Target. “I have shopped there for kids’ shoes. The kids’ dress shoe department was lacking in variety for boys, she said, adding that she’s scored a few dress pants there and loves the makeup department. “The prices are good. That’s one of the reasons I considered it.”

For Mary Brady, her shopping decisions are at least partially governed by proximity, so while the GenXer would shop Penney’s, she can’t because there are none nearby. She considers Sears her favorite department store, owing to its rock bottom prices, fairly good selection and “dead” stores. As a mom of three, her priorities are specific.

“I think a lot of moms aren’t into name brands, especially for young kids, they just want something that will last and don’t have time to be bothered with the whole mall experience of too many people and too long a line,” she said.

A memory of previous retail therapy in JCP led New York millennial mom Erika Stritsman back after a hiatus but that trip didn’t turn out as planned. Stritsman was on the hunt for a cute bathing suit but found herself in a sea of undesirable choices instead.

“It was a huge department but it was awful. Not a single bathing suit worth trying on,” Stritsman said. “They were ALL what I would consider ‘old lady’ bathing suits. Really busy patterns. I like to wear a two-piece tankini, and they were mostly one pieces.”

Having failed to attract the younger set, JCP’s Robbins is quoted as saying the chain is on a quest to woo middle age women “to make her love us again.”

If Cherry Donaldson is any indication, the company is on the right track.

Donaldson had been a loyal JCP catalog shopper years ago when her adult daughter was a baby but the store had fallen out of favor over time. Recently, an ad caught her attention and prompted her to take a second look.

“To my surprise, apart from the huge sale, I was actually able to find quite a few items that I really liked. I ordered online and picked up in store, so I got a chance to see and experience all the wonderful things they had to offer. Excellent collection, for all age groups, and very comparable to some of the other higher end stores,” she said. “I will definitely continue to shop at JCP for some time to come.”