DENNIS SEID: Department stores aren’t what they once were

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

On the day JCPenney announced it was letting go its CEO last week, word came that the company’s store in Vicksburg was closing.
The Vicksburg closing isn’t a big deal for most of you reading this. It was just one of 47 underperforming stores the company said it was shuttering.
But I’m a Vicksburg native, and there’s quite a bit of nostalgia that goes with that store. Well, with all old department stores, really.
The first JCPenney in the River City was built in the 1930s on Washington Street. My grandparents shopped there, as did my parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and many, many others.
It moved to what was then the new Pemberton Square Mall in 1984 in a building with little character, unlike its old downtown spot.
I didn’t come around until the late 1960s, but I remember going to the old store as a kid. That’s when department stores were cool and you could find just about everything you wanted. There was the multi-story Valley Department Store the next block over that was even better.
The stores all had a particular smell that I can’t quite place. It was a “department store” smell. And the stores back then certainly didn’t bake bread or fry chicken or have floral departments.
I certainly wasn’t interested in the clothes and shoes at JCPenney or any other department store. I remember how cool it was to run up the stairs in the back of Penney’s and peering back over the sales floor. Maybe the toy department was up there, too.
Ah, memories. McRae’s, before it was bought out by Belk, was another stalwart on the retail scene. As were TG&Y, Howard’s, Gibson’s.
Then came Walmart. The Arkansas retailer changed the department store game that few were able, or willing, to adapt to. And where are those other stores today? Gone.
It was a nice trek down memory lane for me to think about what it used to be like at JCPenney and those other stores.
But if JCPenney doesn’t want to join the rest of them in extinction, it’s got to right its ship now.
If you’ve been wondering what the company’s been doing the past year or so, join the crowd. Maybe hiring a former Apple exec was thinking too far out of the box for JCP.
A new pricing plan was supposed to be revolutionary – there would be fewer sales and coupons, giving way to everyday low prices. But the execution of the plan flopped, and led to confusion for consumers. The company changed its message several times but still couldn’t get it right.
The results speak for themselves: company sales dropped by 25 percent and losses hit nearly $1 billion last year.
Department stores have changed and aren’t what they once were. It’s not business as usual anymore. They still must adapt to survive and thrive. But as JCPenney discovered, going too far can be just as bad as doing nothing at all.
dennis.seid@journalinc.com