Does Anyone Have a Notion of What JC Penney Even Is Now?

I'm trying to think if there is a way the latest news about Plano-based JC Penney could be any more depressing. I was already pretty depressed when I read about the billion dollars in 2012 losses on a four billion dollar drop in sales this morning, and that was before I got to the story about the Martha Stewart lawsuit or the story about JCP board member Steven Ross dumping 10 million shares of JCP stock.

Just to cheer myself up, I had to go read a story about Lindsay Lohan declining Charlie Sheen's offer to serve as her rehab mentor. The thing about Lindsay Lohan/Charlie Sheen stories: At least you know they're not real people.

James Cash Penney has always been a real person at our house. My wife's pretty Aunt Fannie, the late belle, worked for "Mr. Penney," a man she knew and revered, all her life selling notions at the store in Waycross, Georgia. I always knew that, but this morning I had to call to the bedroom from my home work station: "What are notions, actually?"

Sewing supplies. Thread, needles, buttons and snaps for people who make their own clothes, as many working and middle class Americans used to do. Kind of hard to feature that now, isn't it, in an era when a pair of pants costs less than the fabric, zippers and thread would cost to make it? Not to mention that the cut-rate pair of pants and a pair with a fancy label all probably come out the same machines on the same floor of the same prison/child labor sweatshop in Asia.

JC Penney has been doing what with itself, again? Chief executive Ron Johnson has attempted to position the chain as an "everyday low prices" outlet made up entirely of prestigious mini-boutiques. So it's your typical bricks-and-mortar everyday low prices fancy boutique kind of a thing. And why is it that I can't think what that kind of a thing might be? Maybe it would help me if they positioned some cultural/psychological staff in white lab coats at the front door with pamphlets called, "What this is exactly."

I knew exactly what it was in the old days, because I knew Aunt Fannie. Even in her declining years when she was having trouble remembering who I was, she was all business and no nonsense. When we visited her where she lived with my wife's Aunt Eunice in Florida, I had to hide in the mornings. If she came across me reading the paper in the living room she would snatch it from me and use it as a switch.

"You rascal!" she said angrily. "Sitting around here like Tut! You get out here in that yard where you belong and pull those weeds!"

I did, actually, because there was no getting out of it.

When Penney moved to Plano in 1991, I was between newspaper jobs and did some freelance work for them. I mostly forget what. I do remember writing a speech for somebody. I don't think it was ever used.

They explained to me that they had all the wrong customers. Extensive market studies had revealed that their customers were all "pinchers," people who pinched the fabric to see how good it was and then bought or did not buy mainly on a basis of value for price. I bit my tongue. I could have told them that just based on Fannie, but, you know, the life of a freelance writer is one of monastic humility.

They wanted the new kind of consumer. The new kind were younger, hipper shoppers, suburban rather than small-town, greatly susceptible to advertising, who would pretty much spend all their money on everything they saw in ads and not worry about pinching things or looking for value especially. I thought to myself, "rascals." But I didn't say that.

They were looking for poor lost souls so hungry for identity and acceptance they would squander every cent they had to buy some sort of look or label that would earn them the respect they did not deserve. Ah, the American Dream! Sure, I could write a speech about that. I even remembered this same sort of thing from growing up in the capital of the American automobile industry.

There was a point in the 1970s when the car industry was taken over by Harvard MBA bean-counters who came up with a brilliant new idea for making more money: How about turning out crappier and crappier cars and just raising the prices? What could go wrong with that? As a freelancer at JC Penney, the possibly-going-wrong part was not my department. My goal was to turn in the copy and get paid.

I certainly am not saying that I know now what has gone wrong with JC Penney or American bricks-and-mortar retail generally. That's still way out of my department. No. All I am saying is that I don't get what JC Penney even is.

I know what Walmart is -- cheap and you can pinch stuff. I know what Brooks Brothers is -- expensive, more prestigious, kind of the same stuff you get at Walmart but no pinchy-pinchy. I even know what Best Buy is -- the People's Monopoly Ministry of Electronic Goods where you have to go whether you like it or not and the sales staff all look away from you with Post Office expressions.

But I don't know what JC Penney is. It was the store for pinchers. Then it was the store for suckers. So now it's the store for sucker-pinchers? Is there such a thing? I know what Fannie would tell them if she were still around, and we are all very sad she is not. You rascals get out there and pull some weeds! That could still happen.