PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – With the closing of an under-performing J.C. Penney store in Washington PA, it’s easy to question the future of big box department stores.

Point Park University business professor Dr. Elaine Luther says retailers need to keep changing.

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“They tend to look too much alike. I think they would be better off differentiating themselves,” said Luther.

The irony is that for stores like Penney’s it’s really back to the future.

“Sears and Penney’s used to sell by catalogue but they got away from that, and now that’s the way the market is going.”

But catalogues are on-line and good retailers like Nordstroms merge the in-store and on-line experience.

“Our reputation with the customer was built in the store and the relationship they had with the salesperson,” Nordstrom president Blake Nordstrom told a meeting of the National Retail Federation in New York this week.

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“We think today the stores could take a page from what is on line and how they can improve the efficiency, the service, and total experience. In essence, the customer wants a rich experience across all these channels,” Nordstrom added.

Luther says successful stores must attract customers into the store with expert clerks to show products and answer questions.

“You need to develop that service, have a reason for people to come to your store for some part of that sale you can’t get on line,” added the Point Park professor.

And despite the occasional closure, it turns out that more retail shops opened up than closed last year, although shopping malls are changing as social neighborhoods.

“You may not see the large footprints that some of the stores currently have — that may diminish somewhat — but I think you’re going to see a more vibrant, more eclectic, more dynamic tenant mix at our shopping centers,” Jesse Tron of the International Council of Shopping Centers told KDKA money editor Jon Delano.

“You’ve got to be able to adjust and go with the flow,” noted Steve Sadove, CEO of Saks. “The customer is continuing to change. We’ve got to continue both from technology as well as from strategy.”

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