2019-05-21T131507Z_1964748025_RC191C74A5E0_RTRMADP_3_JC-PENNEY-RESULTS-(Read-Only)
A shopper leaves the J.C. Penney department store in North Riverside, Illinois. Image Credit: Reuters

Christie Mowry, a 43-year-old mom in Missouri, loves shopping at J.C. Penney.

Just don’t steer her to the women’s section, which she says has become a dumping ground of striped shirts and ill-fitting capri pants.

“It’s like they think women my age should go quietly into their golden years without any style or personality,” said Mowry, a claims representative for an insurance company in St. Louis. “They have an antiquated idea of women my age.”

Like many of its peers, J.C. Penney has failed its most loyal shopper: the middle-aged, middle-income mom of middle America. Analysts say retailers, caught up in a millennial-chasing frenzy, have invested heavily in new store formats and trendy brand partnerships, making shoppers such as Mowry feel unwelcome and eating into companies’ bottom lines.

J.C. Penney and Kohl’s — which have toggled between courting moms and millennials — both posted disappointed earnings this past week. And Dress Barn, frequented almost exclusively by middle-aged working women, announced Tuesday that it was closing all 650 of its stores.

“These companies are so busy trying to figure out who their shoppers are — Is it moms? Is it millennials? — that they’ve lost their most loyal shoppers,” said Bob Phibbs, chief executive of the Retail Doctor, a New York-based consulting firm. “Plus the customer experience is forgettable. Nobody is going into a J.C. Penney and saying, ‘You’ve got to see this place. It’s great.’ “

Part of the problem, analysts say, is economic. Rising inequality and stagnant wages have squeezed middle-class Americans, leaving them with less disposable income to spend on clothing and housewares. As a result, they are trading down from department stores to chains such as Target, Walmart and T.J. Maxx, where business is booming.

“Luxury players are doing okay, and discounters are doing okay,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies for Columbia Business School and the former chief executive of Sears Canada. “But the middle continues to be a killing ground, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.”

New tariffs, he added, are likely to make matters worse for middle-of-the-road retailers. Executives at J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and Macy’s this past week warned that the trade war may soon cut into profits as they pay 25 per cent more to import items such as make-up, handbags and leather jackets. At the same time, cash-strapped consumers are likely to cut back on clothing and shoes as they pay more for groceries, toilet paper and other essentials.

“We’ve assumed that there would be an impact to the gross [profit] margin, which is in part why we’ve reduced the outlook from what we previously had,” Bruce Besanko, Kohl’s chief financial officer, said on a Tuesday earnings call. He added that more than 20 per cent of the company’s merchandise comes from China.

In all, American families will pay an additional $767 a year for everyday items following the latest round of tariffs, according to a report by the Trade Partnership, a Washington-based research and consulting firm. If the Trump administration extends that tax to all remaining Chinese imports, that figure could go up to about $2,389 a year for the average household.

At J.C. Penney, sales are down and losses are mounting as the department store chain tries — again — to win over the suburban moms that it has repeatedly sidelined over the past decade. In the most recent quarter, the company posted a $154 million loss, while sales declined 5.6 per cent. Meanwhile, quarterly sales fell about 3 per cent at Kohl’s, where CEO Michelle Gass said the year has “started off slower than we’d like.”

J.C. Penney’s troubles go back nearly a decade, when the company brought on Ron Johnson, formerly head of Apple’s retail business, to revamp its stores. He got rid of coupons and tried to turn the company’s tired locations into sexier enclaves filled with “stores within a store” featuring brands such as Levi’s and I Jeans by Buffalo. It was a fast failure: Sales dropped by about 30 per cent, and longtime shoppers swore off the company.

The company — which fired Johnson after 17 months on the job — has had four chief executives in the past eight years. They have tried a number of approaches: bringing back coupons, reinvesting in hair salons and doubling down on millennial shoppers.

But last summer, J.C. Penney said it was done trying to win over 20-somethings. It was time, the company said, to shift its focus back to middle-aged moms.

“We did lose our way,” Mike Robbins, J.C. Penney’s executive vice president of supply chain, told the Wall Street Journal last year. “[We] took our eye off our core customer.”

The company is now opening 500 new baby shops and replacing its appliance and furniture departments with more clothing. It also brought on a new CEO, Jill Soltau, who has yet to outline her strategy for the company. (A turnaround, she said in an earnings call this past week, “will take time.”)

But Mowry, who wears a size 12, says she has not been impressed by the company’s efforts, particularly in its plus-size and women’s departments.

Until recently she wore a size 16, which made it even more difficult to find well-fitting clothes at the store. When the company did make an effort to offer more stylish clothing in larger sizes by partnering with Project Runway winner Ashley Nell Tipton, the line was targeted squarely to millennials. Mowry said items such as slash-knee jeggings and bomber jackets did little for her wardrobe.

“It was like they were doing everything they could to target a younger clientele,” she said. “And for the rest of us, it was like, ‘Hey, here’s a shapeless green bag you can wear.’ “

These days, she shops at J.C. Penney mostly for her children, who are 11 and 14. The clothes are well-made, she said, and she can often get them at a discount. For herself, she shops almost exclusively at Dress Barn. Now that the chain is going away, she says, she will have to rethink her habits.

“I don’t have a lot of time. I work full time and have kids — and we’re on a budget,” she said. “There’s nothing middle-of-the-road anymore.”

Holly Rye, a small-business owner in Phoenix, agrees. The longtime J.C. Penney and Kohl’s shopper says she now buys clothes almost exclusively online. Department stores, she says, have become a “wasteland” of clothing that is either frumpy or “see-through and sleazy.”

“I’m 56 years old, but I can still rock a pair of shorts and cowboy boots,” said Rye, who has three adult children. “I don’t dress like an old lady.”