West Valley City • As of last week, this light-speed world still held a place for a J.C. Penney store clerk with 41 years in the same job.
Merle Hansen, 80, has served the department store’s customers at Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City since 1971. She knows a great deal about home decor products. If you need help buying blinds or curtains in particular, you’ll want to talk to her.
“I try to keep up,” Hansen said humbly, later confiding that she “could probably name every drape in my department.”
Co-workers gathered recently in a corner of the mall before doors opened to shoppers, for a brief ceremony to honor the friendly and spry lady who reads product catalogues in her spare time and has older customers asking for her by name.
“She’s a real asset, very knowledgeable,” store manager Elizabeth Mack said. “Not many people work in the same job for that long.”
Hansen started at J.C. Penney only months after the West Valley mall opened. Husband Venice — who passed away 10 years ago — was a construction contractor who helped build Valley Fair. He advised her to put in an application, and she was hired the next day.
Her career has spanned not only the life of the mall but also a transformation of the role of department stores in U.S. retail.
Department stores back then still offered an eclectic range of products and still held their niche as destinations for all-day family shopping. The Valley Fair store was then part of an emerging trend of J.C. Penney locating in suburban malls instead of downtowns.
Over the years, Hansen has sold candy, luggage, furniture and especially cameras. Lots and lots of cameras, in fact, most of them Minoltas — before the store winnowed those and many other vanished product lines to focus primarily on apparel and home wares.
Affectionate co-workers gave Hansen a Pentax digital camera to mark her 41st anniversary. The photography buff said later she’d add the Pentax — her first foray into digital — to the Cannon and two Minoltas she’s used for years.
“They really last a long time,” she said of the Minoltas.
Now a national chain with 1,107 stores in 50 U.S. states and Puerto Rico, including nine in Utah, J.C. Penney Co. began as The Golden Rule Store in Kemmerer, Wyo., in 1902. Founder James Cash Penney moved his headquarters to Salt Lake City five years later, ostensibly to be closer to regional rail and banking hubs. The chain today is centered in Plano, Texas.
The store’s original name was meant to invoke four-square respect for customers — a core value that Hansen said she’s built a career on.
Quiet-spoken, modest and amiable, Hansen can offer encyclopedic details on the products she sells, but her main commodity, she said, is her reputation for reliability. While knowing bedsheet thread counts and polyester-to-cotton blends is important, her highest premium is placed on customer care and plain dealing — traits that keep shoppers loyal.
“I’ve always known what I was doing,” she said. “My name is top to me and I don’t want it ruined in any way.”
Many of Hansen’s observations resonate with themes struck by J.C. Penney’s latest CEO, former Apple executive Ron Johnson, who took over in 2011 with a mandate to stem two decades of declining company revenue. He has sought to reshape the J.C. Penney image as U.S. retail continues to fragment and shift emphasis to online sales.
While other chains put forward distinct identities — Walmart for bargains, Target for discount style, Nordstrom for luxury, and myriad niche stores for narrow product lines — J.C. Penney has struggled in recent years to find its brand.
Since taking over, Johnson has launched an overhaul of aging stores, brought in specialty partners, revamped the company logo and hired talk show celebrity Ellen DeGeneres as an advertising spokeswoman — all while highlighting J.C. Penney’s status as a legacy store with old-fashioned values.
”I love brands that are a part of history, that have been a part of America for a long time,” Johnson told a shareholders meeting earlier this year. The company, he said, was ``fine with growing old, just not growing stale.’’
The CEO also has streamlined J.C. Penney’s pricing, decrying what he called “fake prices” artificially inflated only to be marked down with coupons and discounts. The move has so far left customers confused, judging from recent earnings reports.
Hansen’s duties have included ordering from the store’s suppliers, with decades of faxing handwritten orders to vendors gradually giving way to today’s fully computerized ordering system. The task helped her compile that knowledge of merchandise and pricing markups.
She said she tries to be direct with customers. “I can tell you what not to buy,” the mother of three, grandmother of three and great-grandmother of eight said, with a slight smile.
Hansen has worked for 70 managers over those years, including some “who never should have been in the job,” she said. “I’m not one to hold my tongue.”
She is deeply devoted to the store — “Penney’s has always been good to me,” Hansen said — and she’s resisted several attempts to hire her away. Penney’s earned that loyalty in her book with good medical insurance, a generous pension plan, friendly work conditions and vacation time that allowed for a rich and active family life.
The avid snowmobiler and horse lover has retired twice, only to come back to work again, even after heart surgery almost a year ago. “Since my husband died,” she said, “what else have I got?”
Hansen is sure J.C. Penney will be around 40 years from now. And she predicted her job will be there, too.
“I know it will,” she said. “People will always need help.”