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J.C. Penney’s Real Problem: The Shrinking Middle Class * Rita McGrath
April 12, 2013
Ron Johnson’s office seat has barely cooled off following his departure as business observers everywhere dissect what went so dreadfully wrong at J.C. Penney. The former Apple executive was too Silicon Valley for the Plano, Texas, retailer. He was arrogant. He didn’t test his ideas, maintaining the Apple mantra that customers don’t know what they want until you show it to them. He approved marketing campaigns that told loyal Penney’s shoppers that “you deserve to look better,” basically telling them that they looked less than glamorous wearing the brand they had trusted and been comfortable with for years. He hoarded information so that individual store merchandisers didn’t know how various lines were performing. He mocked J.C. Penney’s ways of doing things. He abandoned the discounting customers had come to expect from retailers. And he, and most of the team he recruited, were commuter leaders, jetting back to California after cramming in marathon work sessions at headquarters.
These factors certainly couldn’t have helped. I think, however, there’s one major reason behind J.C. Penney’s sudden swoon that not enough commentators are picking up on. There’s one big reason JCP would never be “Bloomingdale’s for the mass market,” as Johnson wanted it to be, and that’s because the mass market is gone. Because the middle class is gone, or at least rapidly going.
This reflects a troubling development in our economy, what some have termed the “hourglass economy.” This means that companies can reach both high-end and low-end consumers, but there’s no longer a broad middle to appeal to.
For years, a fundamental problem that Penney’s has grappled with is that their historical base of middle-income households is shrinking. If you compare charts showing how various slices of our economy...

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