J.C. Penney and the End of America's Middle Class

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Nearly every one of the 1,374 pages in the J.C. Penney catalog from Fall/Winter 1977 hammers home a single word: value. Dress shoes are “Pretty to Look at... Supple and Comfortable to Wear... and Sensibly Priced.” Coordinating separates “mix and match with classic ease. Nicely tailored with rich fashion accents” and are, of course, “priced for value.” Everything from women’s workwear to children’s clothing to sheets and towels is billed as durable, comfortable, easy to care for—and at the right price. “WE WILL NOT RAISE ANY PRICES IN THIS CATALOG BEFORE JANUARY 28, 1978,” the cover solemnly swears. At the height of its power, J.C. Penney was a dependable fixture of the middle-class retail universe, catering to the shopper who wanted things with a little flair, but without undue putting pressure on the budget.

from 1978 summed up Penneys somewhat snidely: “Sophisticated shoppers have traditionally regarded J.C. Penney & Company as a place where suburbanites and small‐town residents bought such utilitarian items as sheets, towels and children’s clothes. But even such shoppers pranced off to other stores to buy more glamorous apparel for themselves.

creeping into the store’s catalog; looking at the heavy nightgowns today, it’s hard not to think of the energy crisis that marked the decade and the fact that many shoppers at Penneys were probably keeping their heat turned as low as they could stand.The middle-class shopper was always price-conscious, but as the 20th century wore on, they had even cheaper options, wrought by the advance of globalization and the weakening of American unions. They had less money, too.

factory outlet malls everywhere express the material conditions that affect the contemporary North American middle classes: ongoing crises of overproduction and restructuring; straitened business environments that find many major retailers in the United States operating under bankruptcy protection; pervasive consumer cynicism about the levels of service and price provided by retailers; and declines in real income and increases in consumer debt.

But even if they’d done everything right for decades, it might not have been enough to save J.C. Penney, which is flat-lining because the middle class itself is at death’s door. Penneys, Sears, and other retailers have been replaced by cheaper alternatives like Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Target, and the discount-happy Old Navy with its cement floors and $2 flip-flops—back in the bargain basement after all these years.

 

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Why... why is her shoulder like that?

It’s possible (and likely) I’ve had too much coffee but this piece and the 99piorg Articles of Interest that trufelman did has my mind reeling this morning. The way we choose to adorn our bodies and homes really does say heaps and heaps about us as individuals and society.

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