We shopped at Macy’s and JCPenney to see which department store is better — and the winner was overwhelmingly clear

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

  • Department stores have been among the hardest hit in the ongoing retail apocalypse, as retailers continue to struggle against falling sales and declining foot traffic.
  • While both Macy’s and JCPenney have been quietly shuttering stores in a move toward reconsolidation, Macy’s is showing that its renovation efforts and investment in experiential retail is starting to pay off.
  • We visited Macy’s and JCPenney stores in New York City and saw that while Macy’s is finding a way to reinvent its brick-and-mortar strategy, JCPenney is failing to innovate.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Though Macy’s and JCPenney have both been retail stalwarts for more than a century each, their longevity hasn’t made them impervious to the decline of brick-and-mortar department stores.

However, as department stores across the industry continue to face the chopping block, Macy’s efforts to reinvent its physical stores is starting to translate to sales while its peers continue to slip into ruin. The department store reported stronger than expected sales for the first quarter of 2019, with same-store sales increasing by 0.7%, thanks to in-store renovations, improved e-commerce, and experimenting with pop-up concepts.

Read more:We visited Macy’s Color Story pop-up and saw why it’s an Instagram dream

Meanwhile, JCPenney can’t seem to find its footing amid a constantly fluctuating leadership team and its struggle to align with a cohesive brand identity. In the first quarter of 2019, JCPenney reported that same-store sales decreased by 5.5% and that it planned to shutter an additional 27 stores before the end of the year.

We visited Macy’s and JCPenney stores located near each other in midtown Manhattan and saw that while Macy’s is finding a way to breathe new life into the brand, JCPenney is teetering on the brink of collapse.


Our first stop was JCPenney. The only remaining location in New York City is situated within the Manhattan Mall in midtown.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Once you enter the mall, there are a smattering of signs directing shoppers to the lower levels, where JCPenney is located.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

As we descend into the lower levels, the first thing we notice is that the lighting is especially dim. It’s not an especially warm and enticing atmosphere.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

We start in women’s apparel, where there is clearly an overstock of inventory.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Despite the ubiquitous sales throughout the section, nobody seemed to be touching tables like this one, boasting “buy one, get one free” shorts.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Nor were they browsing these St. John’s Bay polos, stacked high and on sale for 40% off.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Despite the piles and piles of unsold inventory, most of the store was pretty tidy. However, there was still the occasional sloppy pile of discarded products.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Throughout the store, there were numerous size-able sale sections, featuring highly discounted apparel.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Meanwhile, there was not a single soul to be found in the jewelry department — not even a sales associate.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

The home goods area was similarly unpopulated.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Near the registers we found some uninspired “new arrivals” displays, like this one featuring picked over mugs and tumblers for bridesmaids.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

The only somewhat bustling part of JCPenney was its in-store Sephora.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Sephora and JCPenney first forged a partnership in 2006. Today, more than 75% of remaining JCPenney stores include a section for the beauty retailer.


However, beyond Sephora, not even its major name-brand partners seemed to have much appeal to consumers.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Next, we visited Macy’s at its famous Herald Square location in New York City.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

While this store undoubtedly receives high foot traffic due to its status as host of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the setting of “Miracle on 34th Street,” the in-store experience compared to JCPenney is basically night and day.


On the first of the gargantuan store’s nine stories, we were immediately inundated with high-end designer brands. Burberry was among the first brands we saw.

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As well as Louis Vuitton and Coach, which were well-lit and inviting in comparison to the bleak feel of the JCPenney store.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

As we walked through the first floor, we found signs and an escalator up to Macy’s new pop-up store concept.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

The store, called Story, features a curated selection of products based on a rotating theme.


The store’s mannequin displays were much more innovative and visually appealing than JCPenney’s.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Macy’s also has a full food court, one of several food options scattered throughout the store.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Among them include Auntie Anne’s and Carvel.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Macy’s has its own Big Piano, the interactive toy made famous by FAO Schwarz and an iconic scene from the Tom Hanks movie, “Big.”

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This was a particular hotspot, where shoppers waited in line to take their turn on the piano.


However, Macy’s wasn’t without its faults. On a lower level, we found a messy purse sale positioned next to ongoing construction.

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There was a lot of caution tape. It looked like a retail crime scene, one where you could also score bags for 80% off.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Toward the top of the building we found an ode to “Miracle on 34th Street.” Macy’s serves as a pivotal part of the movie’s plot.

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Macy’s has separate, well-delineated areas for its men’s and women’s stores. Within these departments we found a mix of designers and brand names across price points.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

The men’s section was especially busy.


Macy’s also has a number of its own private-label brands, including International Concepts.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

The shoe department was especially immaculate.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

We found a room dedicated to shoe discounts bustling with shoppers taking advantage of a final sale.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Though the store has a dedicated beauty department, it also features various kiosks and specialty brands interspersed on different floors.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Unlike the JCPenney home goods section, we actually spotted a few consumers at Macy’s.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider

Ultimately, it was impossible to deny that Macy’s is finding a way to turn its performance around, while JCPenney’s continues to falter.

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Bethany Biron/Business Insider