The question of when America's non-essential stores open is a nail biter for businesses. From mom and pop shops to barber shops, clothing stores to corporate giants, retailers are increasingly desperate to get back to sales and some retail analysts say companies like Sears and J.C. Penny which survived the "Great Depression" and the "Great Recession" may not survive the coronavirus crisis. J. Crew and Neiman Marcus are in the same boat. These are companies that were struggling with debt and decreasing sales before COVID-19 arrived in America. And while there's still a good chance they'll be around when coronavirus passes, it won't be easy for them.
REPORTER: In a sea of retail bankruptcy, J.C. Penny's future looks uncertain. The iconic American retailer known for its low prices and deep discounts, is now billions of dollars in debt and hasn't been profitable since 2010. But long before sales started sinking and debt started rising, J.C. Penny helped transform the retail industry. In 1902, James Cash Penny opened a branch of a dry goods chain called "the Golden Rule" in Wyoming. At the time Penny's business practices were revolutionary. To keep prices low, he banned haggling which was a common practice at the time.
That meant every customer paid the same ticketed price. Penny also encouraged employees to serve customers well. His motto was serve the public to its ultimate satisfaction. And he was dedicated to being ethical applying the store's name "the Golden Rule" to both customers and employees. A decade and many stores later, Penny incorporated the company and changed the name to the brand we know today. The company went public in 1929, right before the Stock Market crash and the "Great Depression" began.
Still J.C. Penny found continued success as customers looking for low cost goods filed in. And in 1951, the company hit $1 billion in sales for the first time.
But in recent years, J.C. Penny has struggled. Sales flagged during the recession and the retailer couldn't bring customers back. The department store was one of the first to adopt e-commerce in 1994 but overall it has struggled to keep up in the digital era.
A parade of CEOs has tried to turn the company around. Ron Johnson came from Apple and tried to give the brand a fresh look in 2012 including ending the stores famous coupons. The costly revamp flopped and consumers lost trust in the business. Three other CEOs have followed but they all have yet to restore the company to its once and former glory.