Faithful Penney’s shoppers disappointed with mall store’s closure

Washington Mall store to shutter doors in early May

January 16, 2014
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Belinda Jones, top left, of Pittsburgh, and her sister, Duanyele Clements of Daisytown, have been regular customers of J.C. Penney at Washington Mall. They were leaving the store after shopping there Thursday. At left, a woman is picked up after shopping Thursday at J.C. Penney at the Washington Mall. It was business as usual at the store Thursday following the announcement that the Washington location is among 33 stores being closed by the retailer. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
A woman is picked up after shopping Thursday at J.C. Penney at the Washington Mall. It was business as usual at the store Thursday following the announcement that the Washington location is among 33 stores being closed by the retailer. Order a Print

It was another sisters shopping day for Duanyele Clements and Belinda Jones. Only this wasn’t the festive foray into retail to which they were accustomed.

Their stroll toward J.C. Penney in Washington Mall Thursday morning wasn’t as chilling as the TV news item they heard the night before – that the company was shuttering 33 stores nationwide, including the local one they like.

“We were shocked and disappointed,” said Jones, of Pittsburgh.

“We shop here often,” said Clements, of Daisytown. “We’ll shop here until they close.”

Penney said in a news release late Wednesday afternoon it is closing the stores because they are underperforming and is cutting 2,000 jobs – including 100 at Washington Mall. The cuts, according to the company, will save more than $65 million annually.

That followed a company announcement earlier this month that Penney was pleased with holiday results, though it declined to give sales figures. A strong November and December is crucial to retailers since it can account for as much as 40 percent of annual sales.

The South Strabane Township site is the only one of nine Penney stores in Southwestern Pennsylvania that will close, and one of three in the state – the others are in Hazleton and Exton in the east.

J.C. Penney said remaining inventory in the affected stores will be sold over the next several months, with final closings expected to be completed by early May.

With its impending closure, Penney’s presence in Washington is gone for now. Ann Marie Bishop, senior manager for media relations and corporate affairs, said in an email Thursday, “We’re always in search of good locations, but there are currently no plans to open another store in Washington.”

Sharon Curry, manager of the local Penney store, politely declined comment, referring media queries to the corporate office in Plano, Texas.

Wednesday’s announcement was the latest blow dealt to Washington Mall, which opened in the late 1960s and was a resplendent and popular shopping venue for several decades. Some of it is in a state of disrepair today – mall management has closed public access to the interior – and J.C. Penney isn’t the only tenant that is leaving.

Designer Furniture Warehouse announced in late December that it was liquidating its merchandise at its DFW Furniture store at the mall and at seven others in the region as a result of bankruptcy proceedings.

That company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Nov. 13. As part of its restructuring, the company received court approval for going-out-of-business/bankruptcy liquidation sales at stores here and in Pleasant Hills, as well as at six of its Ohio stores.

In addition to J.C. Penney and DFW, the other stores currently at the mall are JoAnn Fabrics, Toys R US, Staples, Imperial Cleaners and Grand China Buffet and Grill.

Seven businesses are also operating on outparcels on mall property: Home Depot, a Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits border store, branches of Community Bank and Washington Financial, Firestone Tires, Long John Silvers/A&W restaurant and Waffle House.

Debbie Schumacher, Washington Mall manager, did not return calls from the Observer-Reporter Thursday seeking additional information about the two pending store closures and whether the mall was talking with other potential tenants to replace them.

Starting in May, loyal Penney patrons from the Washington area will have to travel farther to shop in their favored store. The nearest will be at The Mall at Robinson and at The Highlands shopping complex off Interstate 70 east of Wheeling, W.Va., site of Cabelas.

Clements and Jones aren’t relishing that prospect. “It’s so congested in Robinson,” Jones said.

As with many Penney shoppers, the siblings lamented the company’s decision more than a year ago to abandon in-store sales in lieu of promising lower prices every day. Penney reinstituted sales in 2013 after Mike Ullman returned as chief executive officer in April, following a downward sales spiral that occurred under Ron Johnson, his predecessor.

“When they took the sales away is when they failed. The deals had been wonderful,” Jones said.

Betty Johnston of Houston feels as if a longtime friend is abandoning her.

“I will miss the store,” she said. “I’ve been shopping here 40-some years.”

That goes back to when Penney was on Main Street in downtown Washington, before relocating to the mall being unveiled to the north.

“They’ve always had great people working there. Very nice – every one of them.”

Strolling purposefully toward her car, shopping bag in arm, Carol Bellotti of Washington likewise was stunned by word of the pending closing. She didn’t hear it on TV the previous evening, though – but from a reporter requesting an interview.

“I’d better go back and shop some more,” she said, laughing. “I thought it might be moving back to The Foundry.”

In March 2007, J.C. Penney moved from its longtime anchor store position at Washington Mall into a new-format, 100,000-square-foot, single-story store in The Foundry, about a half-mile away.

But subsidence problems in the first phase of the new strip mall caused Penney and several other retailers to close their stores a little over a year later.

Penney closed at The Foundry in June 2008 and reopened at its original Washington Mall site in September of that year, where it has continued to operate.

Last spring, Penney sold the property it owned at The Foundry to the Staenberg Group, which is redeveloping the site into a new retail project called Old Mill.

In a little more than three months, Penney will not be anywhere in Washington County.

Business editor Michael Bradwell contributed to this report.

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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