Despite changing retail landscape, J.C. Penney remains after 50 years in Brookfield Square

By Hannah Weikel - Freeman Staff

Jan. 25, 2018

Malls and department stores have changed drastically in recent history, even since this photo was taken outside J.C. Penney in Brookfield Square Mall during 1996. The Brookfield location is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month as it plunges into a changing retail landscape.
Photo supplied

BROOKFIELD — After decades near the top of a heap of department stores, J.C. Penney is grasping for ways to stay relevant in a changing retail landscape. But at J.C. Penney in Brookfield — reaching its 50th anniversary this month — a major milestone allows for a celebratory reprieve from the company’s uncertain future.

J.C. Penney in Brookfield Square Mall first opened its doors on Jan. 18, 1968 with a wide backdrop of department store success, long before internet and online shopping changed retail.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, exactly 50 years after the Brookfield location held its grand opening, the store was sparsely populated but brimming wall to wall with merchandise; a sea of home décor, formal wear and appliances studded with a portrait studio, salon and Sephora store.

J.C. Penney and other department store hegemons have had to adapt to online spaces and veer toward modern merchandise to attract a new generation of customers.

“When I first started we sold camping equipment,” said J.C. Penney General Manager Rosalie Diaz, pointing to where the display had been near the front of the store in 1992. “But that’s totally gone. Now we sell appliances. We had furniture for quite a while, but then we got rid of that too. We adapt.”

 J.C. Penney at Brookfield Square Mall recently.
Hannah Weikel/Freeman Staff

An imprecise future

After a massive downsize last year that closed more than 130 stores nationwide, including four in Wisconsin, J.C. Penney still operates approximately 875 stores across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

There’s a prevailing perception that retail outlets, specifically department stores and malls, are having a hard time staying afloat. But as a whole the industry is doing better than ever before, said Mark Mathews, the National Retail Federation’s vice president of research development and industry analysis.

“Holiday sales grew 5.5 percent this year. Retail is growing online and in store,” he said. “Demographics change, so malls that have been there for 30 or 40 years may not serve the needs for that community anymore. People change, tastes change and areas change.”

Mathews said the future isn’t strictly online or in store, but a combination of the two. Retailers are learning to adapt and fill both spaces by listening to what customers want, he said.

Mary Jo Muenkel has been coming to J.C. Penney since she moved to Waukesha in 1983. She said she’s always liked the quality of clothing and home wares sold there.

A photograph of JC Penney, formerly known as Penney's, taken at Brookfield Square Mall in 1978. The store is celebrating its 50 years in business this month.
Photo courtesy of Brookfield Square Mall

Muenkel and her husband bought their curtains and some furniture from J.C. Penney over the years, but recently started to shop mostly online, she said.

J.C. Penney has a website that offers special deals and same day pickup in stores to cater to customers.

Over the years, J.C. Penney and other department stores like Sears and Macy’s have had to adapt to the wants and needs of customers while competing with online retailers that have less overhead and more flexibility.

Sears in Brookfield Square recently announced plans to drastically downsize or even close the store completely in the next year. The space will be redeveloped for a movie theater and other entertainment as Brookfield Square, too, struggles to keep people coming through its doors.

Evolution is necessary to stay in business, Diaz said.

“We’re still here, there are still people coming in,” she said. “It’s just how they shop is different. If the weather is bad or the kids are sick, you can still shop by shopping online.”

J.C. Penney, like all department stores, rakes in the most sales over the Christmas holiday and hires thousands of seasonal workers. In this photo, Penney in Brookfield Square Mall is decked out for the 1992 Christmas holiday.
Photos supplied

The retail industry is changing faster nowadays, Mathews said, but many businesses, including traditional department stores, are eager to keep up.

“The reality of stores these days, people don’t get caught up in channels,” Mathews said, referring to different ways of reaching customers. “But if you’re ignoring a channel, that’s probably a detriment to your store.”

Mathews said appealing to the youngest generation of consumers challenges stores like J.C. Penney. They’ve started working with “influencers,” like popular name brands or well-known YouTube stars to market their products.

Fashion changes rapidly and department stores must try to keep up with trends. The most popular items sold at J.C. Penney today are athletic clothing and Sephora makeup, which is a far cry from what models wore during a 1993 J.C. Penney fashion show.
Photo supplied

Luring a new generation

Walking into J.C. Penney from inside Brookfield Square Mall, customers must pass dozens of Sephora makeup displays, part of its black and white striped “store-within-a-store.”

J.C. Penney stores started a partnership with Sephora — a Paris-based luxury cosmetics retailer — in 2006 with a promise that it would only sell that brand of makeup on JCP.com and a prominent space would be cordoned off for the beauty products in-store.

Sephora operates a small space right inside the J.C. Penney entrance. The luxury beauty product retailer partnered with J.C. Penney in 2006.
Photo supplied

Madeline Collins and her mother Rene were standing at a counter in the Sephora store inside J.C. Penney last week, waiting to buy a couple of products. Madeline, a UW-Madison sophomore, was unaware she was inside a J.C. Penney store. They had only stepped in for Sephora, she said.

“We love Sephora products,” said Rene, whose other daughter is a cosmetologist. “They let you test stuff and return it. It’s easy to bring stuff back.”

Rene couldn’t recall the last time she and her daughters shopped at J.C. Penney proper.

“When we come in here, we don’t think Penney’s,” she said.

Rene and Madeline Collins aren’t alone. At least a dozen other women were milling among the gondolas in Sephora within J.C. Penney; almost outnumbering the shoppers looking around the rest of the two-story department store that afternoon.

Sephora has used the partnership as a way to drastically increase its brick-andmortar presence, said David Suliteanu, president and chief executive officer of Sephora U.S.A.

“J.C. Penney’s focus on providing relevant merchandise to its broad customer base is consistent with our objectives. This includes America’s youngest women,” Suliteanu said in a statement when the pairing was announced in 2006. “We believe that J.C. Penney will continue to grow in size and strength for many years to come.”