Retailers from Penney’s to Nordstrom to Macy’s try to find and master market niche

By Laura Gunderson, The Oregonian

Three months after JC Penney rolled out a plucky yet random ad campaign, a scaled-back lineup of promotions and an “everyday low prices” plan, clerks at the retailer’s Washington Square location were all smiles.

“Isn’t it great to pay only $2 for something?” one cashier asked a customer as she bagged a child’s shirt.

“Yes,” the shopper admitted, “I was surprised.”

It’s not hard to understand why Penney’s new chief executive, Ron Johnson, who joined the retailer from Apple Inc., was charged to do something. Penney’s sales have declined from $19.9 billion in 2008 to $17.3 billion in 2011, while such competitors as Macy’s, Nordstrom, Kohl’s and Target gained ground, either in sales or on the cool-factor gauged by exclusive celebrity and designer partnerships.

And yet what may be most surprising to retail experts and academics alike is that department stores are around at all. Throughout the recession, nearly everyone who was asked rang the death knell for mid-level department stores that just couldn’t keep up with discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. Unless department stores aim high or low, went the theory, there’s no hope.

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