HERMITAGE, Pa. — Barbara Cake had made the sale. A man was hovering near the gold bracelets at the J.C. Penney jewelry counter when she said, "Hi, sir, how are you?" Before long, he was swiping his credit card for both a bracelet and a pair of diamond earrings for his wife. But Barbara wasn't done.
"If she doesn't like these," she told the customer, "then tell her you know a lot of ladies who would."
"I just want my husband to buy me a watch," she continued. "She should be truly happy with these."
Barbara ripped the receipt from the register, pointed at the flimsy paper and, in a tone that sounded as if she were revealing a sworn secret, she delivered her favorite line.
"Just wait till you see what you saved."
There were four days until Christmas, and this customer had decided against shopping online to come to a real store and talk to real people. To Barbara, that meant she had to provide something he couldn't get from clicking buttons on a computer. Could the Internet assure the customer that he was making the right choice? Could it praise him for being a thoughtful husband? Could it make sure that he was getting the best possible deal?
That was what Barbara could offer at the last remaining department store in the only mall in Hermitage, a city of 16,000 in Western Pennsylvania. J.C. Penney used to be one of three anchor stores at the Shenango Valley Mall. Then, one day last March, both Sears and Macy's shut down, becoming two of the more than 500 department stores that closed across the country in 2017. Headlines have called the shrinking of these American staples the "retail apocalypse." In Hermitage, employees called it "the funeral," because of the way it sounded as customers lined up to make their final purchases. "I'm so sorry," they said. "I'm in shock." "What are you going to do?" "What am I going to do?"
What might have been just a sign of the times in a bigger city was a life-changing and economy-altering loss for Hermitage, the kind of place too far from anywhere to be considered a suburb, but too developed to be considered rural or to attract visitors with small-town charm. The closest thing Hermitage has to a downtown is the intersection where its mall sits, surrounded by McDonald's, Walgreens and Dunkin' Donuts. The biggest buildings down the road are Kohl's, Kmart and Walmart. The retail industry is the third-largest employer in town, just behind health care and manufacturing.
When Macy's and Sears closed, nearly 200 people lost their jobs — the equivalent of 1 in 5 retail positions in the city. In the months that followed, strips of tape kept appearing on the mall directory, blacking out the names of stores that followed suit: FYE, Rue 21, GNC, the local antiques store, Jammin Jac's pizza shop. At many of the businesses that remained, foot traffic and sales numbers plummeted.
But come November, J.C. Penney was still open, and the most important season in retail was about to begin. Sharon Loughner, the general manager, was confident that the rush of holiday customers was on its way and, with little choice of where to go, that they would be coming to her store. She would need more workers to do all the extra fetching, folding, stacking and selling, and so she put out a call for seasonal employees.
Among the parade of well-qualified applicants from Hermitage and towns nearby came Barbara, a 67-year-old woman who seemed to represent all that retail used to be. She was impeccably dressed for her interview. She planned to wear a pantsuit each day. She talked about catering to the customer's every need. She addressed everyone, no matter their age, as "sir" or "ma'am."
For J.C. Penney to succeed, it needed employees like Barbara, whose necklace and bracelet, Sharon noticed, coordinated perfectly with her outfit. Sharon thought of the department where the sale of a single item could equal a dozen sweaters in revenue.
"How would you like," she asked Barbara, "to work behind the jewelry counter?"
Barbara accepted, not thinking about the arthritis in her hands that would make it hard to work the small clasps, the plantar fasciitis in her right foot that would act up if she stood for hours, the reading glasses she would need to see the small numbers on the price tags. She had been an executive secretary for 30 years, and now, a few years into her retirement, had done the math on her savings, her mortgage payment and her grandchildren's Christmas gifts and decided it was time to return to work.
The job at J.C. Penney was guaranteed only until the new year, but if she worked hard enough, she thought, they might keep her on. As a "sales associate," she would be expected to sell about $1,500 worth of merchandise a day and would bring home $8.50 an hour, before tax.
She studied up on diamond ratings and learned to lock the jewelry counter's glass cases to help prevent shoplifting. She learned not to ask if customers had J.C. Penney credit cards, but to assume that they did, so they would feel like they should. "And that will be on your Penney's card, sir?" She survived Black Friday, perfecting her response to unhappy customers: a hand over her bedazzled brooch and a sincere apology. "I'm sorry, ma'am, we don't have the Fitbit here."
Sometimes she worried she might be taking this position from someone who needed it more than she did. For many of her co-workers, Penney's was a second job. Amanda in jewelry had four children to support. Tina in home goods was taking care of her sick mother. Marcia in the men's department had been laid off when Macy's left. The employees bristled every time a customer asked, "Is Penney's going to close, too?"
The question was being asked constantly during the holidays, as customers returned to the Shenango Valley Mall and saw, some for the first time, the hallways of empty storefronts. There was nowhere except Penney's to buy men's dress clothes. The store known for its elastic waistband pants for "mature women" was still thriving, but staples such as Bath & Body Works and the Hallmark store kept reporting drops in profits to their corporate owners. Fewer than 100 people still worked at the mall year-round.
One of them was Don Howell, the man some shoppers called the rent-a-cop, but who called himself director of public safety. Don roams the wide halls for hours a day, wearing a round-brimmed hat, a gold badge and a radio to page the mall office, because there is really a need for only one officer at a time.
When the mall tenants kept complaining that the building's New Jersey-based owner wasn't doing anything to improve the mall's situation, Don decided to give himself another title: assistant mall manager. That is how he introduces himself when he emails established retail giants in hopes they will take a chance on the mall. He has contacted Target and Rural King, Boscov's and Dick's Sporting Goods. He has been in talks with a local bakery that might be interested in the old GNC space. So far, the biggest success has been a local coffee shop that opened in what used to be an American Eagle.
When he hears shoppers complaining about the state of the mall, he offers them a simple solution: "Use it," he says, "or lose it."
Three days before Christmas, Barbara arrived in the J.C. Penney break room to find her co-workers huddled around the local newspaper.
"Wow, look at this," she said, picking it up. A photo of the mall was at the top of the page.
The article said the county had decided that the mall building and the property it sits on is no longer worth what it once was. Soon, the amount of taxes the mall owners pay the city would be cut by more than half. This would make the mall easier to sell — but would mean huge losses in revenue for the city and its schools.
"Yep, people's home and property values are going to be going down now," said Lori Ost, who had been working at J.C. Penney for four years.
"Is that what it's saying?" Barbara asked, thinking of her home four miles from the mall.
"Hermitage has nothing; this is what Hermitage has," Lori said. "I would be out there hustling every day to get business in here. Maybe a lower price will attract potential buyers."
Barbara nodded, opening up the paper to find the rest of the article.
"If I had that kind of money," Lori said, "I'd just buy it and tear it down and build something new."
Barbara closed the paper. "That's really scary," she said, and then she went down to the sales floor, where nearly every customer she met would be affected if someone did decide to tear down the mall.
Here came the "mall walkers," who arrived for their exercise every day at 9 a.m. There was John and Marty, two older gentlemen, accompanied by Jim, the younger one whom they let join their routine after he lost his job at the Cooper Bessemer engine-making plant nearby. There was Tom and Lorene, a couple who had been walking in the mall every cold day since 1991. They hadn't yet been to the mall's new coffee shop, where coffee is $2.50 more expensive than it is at Auntie Anne's. "We're not really fancy Starbucks people," they explained.
Here came the kind of shoppers malls have always depended on: the browsers, who saw shopping as something fun to do. Liz and Bob Adams planned on picking up a Paw Patrol toy for their grandson but ended up at the jewelry counter.
"There are some great deals today. You would be shocked," Barbara told them.
Liz hovered near the diamond rings. She and Bob had both been widowed before they met. Usually at Christmas they said "we are each other's gift," but these rings, Liz told Bob, were really beautiful.
Barbara showed them the "Holiday Extra Effort" deal that meant they could get an extra 30 percent off if they spent more than $500. They walked out with a $612 ring, $1,887 off the retail price.
Then came the type of customer Barbara loved helping most: those for whom a trip to the mall was a special occasion that had to be saved for, as it had been for her growing up in Shamokin, Pa. She was one of eight children. Her mother would send her to scour the Woolworths, W.T. Grant and Newberry stores to see which had the best price before they bought anything.
Now she met a 7-year-old named A.J., whose mother had given him $50 from her Social Security check, her only income, to buy her a Christmas gift. A.J. asked his grandparents to take him to buy her some jewelry.
"She likes pink," A.J. told Barbara.
"She likes earrings that dangle," his grandmother said.
Barbara walked them to the cases of sterling silver hoops, to the bracelets, to the pendants with 1/10 karat of a diamond on special for $25.
"Nothing gold?" the grandmother asked.
Barbara placed her hand over her brooch. "Not for $50," she apologized.
She walked them back to the case of gold anyway, opened it and started taking out each box, scanning bar codes and adding all the coupons she could.
"His mom doesn't have too much real stuff," A.J.'s grandmother said.
In the corner of the case, Barbara found a $124 pair of earrings on sale for $31.79. The jewels were cubic zirconia, but the thin metal loops were 10-karat gold.
"A bargain," she promised. A.J. gave her a thumbs up.
Barbara looked at her watch as she rang them up. She had spent nearly 40 minutes helping them. She knew she wouldn't meet her sales goal today.
By Dec. 23, the slowdown had begun. Barbara's manager posted a sign at the counter saying the fine jewelry department was less than $8,000 from its holiday season goal. "Ladies!" she wrote. "Keep pushing, we're almost there!" But the snow was coming down during Barbara's closing shift, and she knew it would stop her customers from visiting. She was already worried about driving to her daughter's house on Christmas Day. She had saved up enough to buy her 8- and 10-year-old granddaughters iPads, which she had purchased online with discounts.
Barbara watched the last-minute shoppers browse — too late to buy things online now, she thought. She tried to sell a $60 watch to a mother looking for her son but quickly pulled out the $29 one when the woman grimaced at the price. "A steal!" she said as she handed over the receipt.
A husband bought a necklace and earring set at nearly 70 percent off. "She's going to think you robbed the bank to get her gift," Barbara said.
She rang up purchases for customers who didn't want to wait in the regular checkout line, selling them jeans and socks and pajama bottoms.
"I feel weird just standing here," she said.
In a few days, the store managers would call Barbara to ask if she would like to stay on after the holidays. They would warn her that the job would be far fewer hours come January. After customers finished their post-Christmas returns, things would be slow, at least until Valentine's Day. They just weren't sure how slow.
"Excuse me?" a customer said, and Barbara turned around.
"Yes, sir," she said. "What can I do for you today?"
"Where's the men's bathroom?" he asked.
She pointed him in the right direction. There were still two hours to go until midnight and closing. She slipped a foot out of her heels and stretched. Then she reached for a roll of paper towels, picked up a spray bottle and began to polish the glass counters, trying to make everything as shiny as she thought it ought to be.