Sunday, August 19, 2012

US Hwy 30: The JC Penney Mother Store

One of the things I enjoy most about driving the "old" US Highways is that I never know what I'll find and learn in the small towns I pass through along the way. For example, driving through the tidy, prosperous looking little town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, I saw this storefront and said to myself, "Now that I've got to check out!"

The inside of the store looks like a typical retail shop, with the addition of a few historical artifacts and photos on display. I asked the woman at the counter a few questions about the place, and received a response that amounted to not much more than, "Yes, this is the first JC Penney store."

After looking around a little more, I selected a souvenir t-shirt and tried a few more questions at the purchase counter. This time, the woman said, "You should go down the block and look at the house museum. They have a lot more information there." Good to know!

So, I wandered down the block and found this darling little house, the inside of which is decorated with furniture of the period and a fairly extensive display of artifacts.

I was the only visitor in the place and, to my delight, the curator on hand was a very nice woman who was more than happy to answer all my questions and give me excellent, detailed answers. The gist of the story is that JC Penny worked at a dry goods store in Rock Springs, Wyoming (where I had just come from!) called "The Golden Rule Store." In 1902 he was offered the chance to buy a one-third share in a new Golden Rule Store in Kemmerer. That store was immediately successful, and within five years he was a partner in three Golden Rule stores. In 1907, he bought out his partners and renamed the stores, which eventually numbered more than a thousand.

In our conversation, I asked the woman what her favorite artifact was and she showed me a picture. In it, she is the young woman standing next to Mr. Penney, along with her mother and grandmother. She explained that her grandfather had been an associate of Mr. Penney, and had the opportunity to buy into the business very early on. She smiled when she said, "I think if he had, I might be rich now." My favorite artifact is the hole in the upstairs floor where Mr. Penney kept his money!

There's a lot more to the story, including "The Penney Idea" which is a pretty good set of rules for running a business. You can click on the photo shown here at left to enlarge it and read for yourself.

It is clear from everything on hand that Mr. Penney was an extremely astute business man and a very charismatic individual who built an extraordinary enterprise.

Another part of the story is especially interesting to me. Showing my t-shirt to the curator, I asked, "Now I understand why the illustration shows a building called 'Golden Rule Store', but what's the story behind the 'One Price' sign over its door?" (Click on the t-shirt photo above to take a closer look.)

She answered that Penney was the first retailer to offer "one price for all" instead of haggling on almost every sale.

Clearly a novel sales approach in its day, it got me thinking about Penney's recent "Fair and Square" pricing strategy which you've probably seen in the media, and which has been pretty much a disaster for the company. Researching further, I found some analysis that this result is because modern customers do not trust or appreciate one-price strategies. (There's a lot of psychology involved, which you can read about in this article link.)

The gist of all this is a fine reminder that success in business requires a thorough understanding of what customers want (in both products and buying experience), a straightforward business model, a compelling philosophy, consistent cultural reinforcement and a good dose of personality.

All of these things, however, are subject to the fashions of the time in which they exist. All enterprises must evolve within their commercial environments in order to survive, let alone thrive. If you attempt an evolution and it fails, try another evolution. Going back to "how we did it in the beginning" -- as JC Penney has so clearly exhibited -- will not work.

To say the least, I got a lot out of my chance visit while driving through Kemmerer… Stay tuned!

Click here to see exactly where I am posting this from on Google Maps.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. I really enjoyed reading it.