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Penney's is the latest in brick-and-mortar death spiral

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Photo

The echoes from the lamentations about the demise at the end of March of the downtown Minneapolis Macy’s store, the former Dayton’s, had barely subsided when J. C. Penney announced last week its plan to close up to 140 of its 1,014 stores throughout the country.

It’s not yet known, but will be soon, how many of its 25 facilities in Minnesota (ranging from Thief River Falls to Winona and Duluth to Mankato, as well as about a dozen in the Twin Cities area) will be affected by the closures — about one of every seven stores plus two major distribution centers, along with layoffs and early retirements offered to some 6,000 Penney’s personnel.

But it’s likely, statistically speaking, that at least a few Minnesota outlets will be put out of business by year’s end. It follows a pattern that started early this year with closures of many Kmart and Sears sites, preceding the shuttering of Macy’s.

It’s all part of a well-known trend, as online sales and changes in consumer shopping and spending habits undermine traditional retail markets. Some thought Penney’s might survive what Money magazine has referred to as the “death spiral” of conventional department stores. It did show a small profit last year, the first time in a decade. But despite slightly being in the black, sales volume fell, making closures inevitable.

While hardly as iconic as the former Dayton’s, the downtown Penney’s deserves some nostalgic, loving remembrances, too.

The Penney’s chain began in 1902, coincidentally the same year that Dayton’s opened at 7th and Nicollet. The Penney’s department facilities, which started in Wyoming, were not related to another long-gone Twin Cities retailer, the grocery chain that went by the same name (although spelled “Penny’s”), but was locally owned.

The downtown store, which occupied the corner of 5th and Nicollet beginning in 1953, when it moved from an adjacent building, was one of five big all-purpose retailers downtown, along with Dayton’s, Donaldson’s, Young Quinlan, and Powers — all within a six-block area in the heart of the city. Except for Dayton’s, they were all gone by the mid-1980s, with Penney’s being the last to go in 1986, shuttering its store where the RBC Plaza now stands.

The downtown Penney’s was where I bought my first post-college business suit, a blue pinstripe for $59.95 (no, it did not come with two pairs of pants — I’m not that old ), along with shoes, penny loafers naturally.

Penney’s certainly was not as prestigious as some of the other downtown stores, or the now nearly-vanished breed of pure apparel stores. It did not have an elite clientele, catering instead mainly to working men and women. They found it penny-wise to shop there, as the prices generally were lower on most goods compared to other downtown stores.

But it had decent clothing, an excellent photo shop, and a good selection of appliances, a line it recently upgraded at showrooms in some of its Twin Cities facilities.

Another feature that I appreciated was that the store was easy to navigate. Unlike Macy’s/Dayton’s, with its 12 stories, Penney’s was more compact and better laid-out in a way that made shopping more efficient and economical.

Penney’s personnel always seemed very accommodating. They knew that they were second-tier, which, as in the Avis slogan, made them “try harder.” A friend’s father worked at the downtown site, and he was very personable and gregarious, typical of Penney’s pleasing personnel, which added to the pleasure of shopping there.

Penny’s personnel also seemed to have longevity. The same haberdashery salesman who sold me my initial pinstripe suit was still there a decade later when I stopped in to buy a plaid sport coat, which lasted for about 15 years.

No, Penney’s was not for everyone. But, alas, if the present trend continues, it soon will not be for anyone.

This article was orginally published by the Star Tribune