By Abha Bhattarai

The Washington Post

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 — posted disappointed earnings this past week. And Dress Barn, frequented almost exclusively by middle-aged working women, announced Tuesday 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.’”

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 warned this month the trade war may soon cut into profits as they pay 25% 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.

At J.C. Penney, sales are down and losses are mounting. In the most recent quarter, the company posted a $154 million loss, while sales declined 5.6%. Meanwhile, quarterly sales fell about 3% at Kohl’s, where CEO Michelle Gass said the year has “started off slower than we’d like.”

J.C. Penney’s troubles go back nearly a decade, when the company brought on Ron Johnson, formerly head of Apple’s retail business, to revamp its stores. He got rid of coupons and tried to turn tired stores into sexier enclaves filled with “stores within a store” featuring brands such as Levi’s and I Jeans by Buffalo. It was a fast failure: Sales dropped by about 30%, and longtime shoppers swore off the company. Johnson was fired after 17 months on the job. The company has tried a number of approaches: bringing back coupons, reinvesting in hair salons and doubling down on millennial shoppers. But last summer, J.C. Penney said it was done trying to win over 20-somethings. It was time, the company said, to shift its focus back to middle-aged moms.

“We did lose our way,” Mike Robbins, J.C. Penney’s executive vice president of supply chain, told the Wall Street Journal last year. “(We) took our eye off our core customer.”

The company is opening 500 new baby shops and replacing its appliance and furniture departments with more clothing.

But Mowry, says she has not been impressed by the efforts. “It was like they were doing everything they could to target a younger clientele,” she said. “And for the rest of us, it was like, ‘Hey, here’s a shapeless green bag you can wear.’”

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