It’s called “The J.C. Penney Experience.”
On a marketing blitz to make over its image from Dockers-drab, J.C. Penney has constructed a temporary pop-up store in the middle of Times Square to showcase its cutting-edge house brands. The shop is ideally supposed to resemble a big red box plopped down on 42nd Street, where “it’s all inside.”
Sad to say, but how long has it been since any of us have really craved the J.C. Penney experience? The company’s reputation has been in the toilet for some time: It’s the underwhelming department-store bookend at one end of every suburban town’s “bad mall,” the same mall with a single Chik-fil-A instead of a food court and a multiplex that shows Bad Boys II on all four screens for a week.
We feel bad for J.C. Penney. Who wants its name associated with deteriorating shopping plazas and ’80s-style mail-order catalogues? So when we head uptown to explore The Experience, we are hoping for the best.
Decked out in a graphic red-and-white color scheme, the Times Square promotion fortunately doesn’t in any way resemble a classic J.C. Penney. Drab makeup counters and nondescript cluttered metal racks of clothing have been replaced with museum-style, clear cases displaying shoes and kitchen appliances; mannequins are positioned in front of sharp backdrops printed with stylized, dot matrix-like images of Penney-affiliated designers. There’s a computer kiosk in front of every mannequin display—the idea being to shop online at the kiosks for the full selection, although it’s difficult to imagine anyone truly standing around long enough to accomplish this.
Perhaps it’s just the odd coincidence that J.C. Penney and Target’s colors are similar, but we sense something more. One can almost see the board meeting where the Target business-case study landed on everyone’s chair, the agitated VP paced the floor— “Look at their kicky bullseye! Where’s our kicky bullseye?! I don’t want to die next to Bad Boys.” But the company that James Cash Penney built more than a hundred years ago will have to do far more than construct a splashy red box in the middle of Times Square and pull in celebrity endorsements from LeAnn Rimes. They will have to make us want this merchandise.
Brands like Arizona Jean Company do little to persuade. While there’s nothing atrocious about these simple polos, faded jeans, and brightly colored hoodies, there’s nothing particularly extraordinary here that couldn’t be found at any American Eagle Outfitters. New designer cachet comes courtesy of Nicole Miller’s “Nicole,” but this line of what J.C. Penney refers to as “runway chic” includes perhaps the dowdiest version of the bubble skirt this season, a knee-length metallic number in polyester. A pink-and-teal “kabuki sleeve” blouse with an elastic shirred waist from Bisou Bisou could have been yanked straight from the sale rack at Filene’s. There are some high points— the Cook’s Corner coffee urns, toasters, and kitchen gadgets in unconventional shades of fire-engine red, lime green, and yellow— but overall, this reminds us of Walmart’s half-assed attempts last fall to court Target customers with advertisements in Vogue and its lackluster new Metro 7 women’s collection. Let’s face it: None of Wal-Mart’s or J.C. Penney’s recent efforts can compare with Target’s partnerships with Isaac Mizrahi, Michael Graves, Luella Bartley, or Philippe Starck.
Speaking of which, at this very minute ten people are duking it out on eBay for a piece from the 2002 Target/Starck collaboration. The current bid for the item, two baby bottles and a cleaning brush, is $61.