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 month. And Dress Barn, frequented almost exclusively by middle-aged working women, announced last week 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.’ ”
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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 OK, and discounters are doing OK,” 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 month warned that the trade war may soon cut into profits as they pay 25 percent more to import items such as makeup, 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 an earnings call. He added that more than 20 percent 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.