Jacques Penné's virtual reality e-store.

The Unbearable Sadness of JCPenney’s Soho Pop-Up

JCPenney opened a glitzy two-day pop-up shop called Jacques Penné, and it felt like a depressing betrayal of its customers.

by Al Bedell
Dec 15 2017, 7:49pm

Jacques Penné's virtual reality e-store.

Seeking a fresh approach to retail, JCPenney opened a two-day holiday pop-up shop named Jacques Penné last week in the heart of Soho, intending to appeal to young, hip metro shoppers. When I heard about the brand’s puzzling ploy of a rebrand I, like most people, thought it was a joke. It seemed like a cutesy, semi-funny suburban quip in the same vein as Target’s “Targé,” the term middle class women use to justify buying discount pseudo-designer home goods. But Jacques Penné is not a joke, or it is in the way that some jokes just draw attention to a comedian's mundane misery. As a former suburbanite and the loving daughter of a longtime supporter of JCP, I’d like to think the company is aware of its self-deprecating humor; unfortunately, I’m not certain that the imaginary Jacques Penné customer is.

It was snowing and the gas in my apartment had just been turned off when I decided to visit Jacques Penné on a Saturday afternoon. The sidewalk was slushy and the falling snowflakes seemed to slow down in the orange glow of streetlights. The air was dewy with a mirthful cold bite. Broadway wasn’t as packed as I was expecting but there were still a decent amount of tourists getting into the snowy December spirit of buying stuff. I could tell they were tourists because they were shopping on Broadway on a Saturday.

As I stepped into Jacques Penné, I was greeted with bright lights and two retail clerks dressed in suits. The mirthful snow had soaked my coat, hat, and gloves, so I carried them into the store. Notecards and mini pencils were placed in a basket so customers could write down the products they intended to purchase as they browsed, so as not to disrupt the manicured displays. I was extra mindful of the displays as I had to carry my sopping wet outerwear around, and I did not want to offend anything.

Photos by Al Bedell.

The decor in Jacques Penné was subdued and upscale. Pristine white walls, ceilings and floors were dressed in splashes of bronze (not quite gold), silver sequins, and a dusty shade of coral-mauve that can be described as knockoff Millennial Pink. A few white leather couches punctuated the boutique’s miniature departments. I was expecting an increased price-point overall but was relieved to see that everything was extremely inexpensive. It was a selection of the best things one could find in a regular JCPenney. The men’s section had pretty decent-looking suede slippers for just $29.99, plaid scarves selected by Nicole Richie for $12, and an off-brand Keurig for just $100. I don’t think anything was over $150 and everything was at least stainless steel.

The teen department featured a pair of $60 black Vans, labeled “Ward Skate Shoes,” cheetah printed CHI hair straighteners for $90, and rouge suede clutches that I can’t imagine anyone of any age ever carrying.

I believe the pop-up shop was well-curated and well-intentioned overall. That said, I was inexplicably saddened by my experience at Jacques Penné. Maybe it was the over-anticipation of the event, the over-staffing of retail associates on the floor with nothing to do but stare at their phones. Maybe it was their uniform—a silver sequined top that Bette Midler might choose if she walked into a Topshop (also for sale at Jacques Penné for $34.99). Maybe it was the severe lack of shoppers at a two-day event, or the social media manager desperately trying to capture an illusion of the shop’s success. She even asked to take my photo while sitting on one of their snow white couches.

Photos by Al Bedell.

Maybe I felt betrayed by JCPenney, for the way Jacques Penné alienated their loyal customers. People who shop at JCPenney don’t shop in SoHo. People who shop at JCPenney drive to the mall within a few miles of their neighborhood. JCPenney provides an authentic shopping experience for those with minimal disposable income. Those people aren’t interested in glitzy Etsy-inspired boutiques, they’re interested in buying practical gifts for their loved ones because that’s what Americans do in December.

As I sat on the white couch, waiting for more people to come into Jacques Penné, still wallowing in inexplicable sadness, I tried not to think about my gas being turned off or that I couldn’t afford to buy anyone Christmas presents. I thought about my mom. She has been a JCPenney shopper for as long as I can remember. Of course, I never liked anything she bought me from the store, but I always pretended to love the polyester sweaters and cartoon print pajama bottoms I received every Christmas. Money was always an issue for her, but she always managed to put gifts under the tree. She used to wrap each individual piece of candy in our stockings so we would have more things to unwrap. I guess that’s probably not something all JCPenney shoppers do, but I like to think that it is.

Maybe the sadness that washed over me was in witnessing a department store’s slow demise, its last gasping attempt to save itself yet ultimately falling short. JCPenney is by no means a “good guy,” but as far as late capitalism goes, I’m still rooting for them because I care about their customer base, perhaps more than JCPenney does itself. It’s hard to say if JCP customers will continue to support them if they keep pulling embarrassing, tone-deaf stunts such as Jacques Penné. Death makes people mourn, but the verge of death makes people uncomfortable. But I know that my mom would nurture any dying animal, even an ugly one, and I like to think that true JCPenney shoppers would do the same.