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Chances are you are doing a lot of your shopping at some of the big name department stores. So do I. The reasons for it are many: They’re everywhere, they carry every size and fit, and they’re usually priced in a reasonable way.

In my area the big names are JC Penny’s, Kohls and Macy’s. Each one of them occupies a certain niche in the Department Store Jungle and they each do what they do perfectly. There’s no point in bashing any of them really. They’re not so much a statement of who you are or what your style is. Think of them as tools to creating a really effective wardrobe. My closet wouldn’t be what it is today without having spent some time and money at each of them.

That being said, I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to use these stores the wrong way. Let’s take a look at these stores and I’ll show you what I use them for.

This Wisconsin based department store is one of the largest retailers in the United States. It has everything inside. Absolutely everything. You happen to need a hand mixer along with your wardrobe… they got your back. JCP is like this too but the majority of their shopping space from what I’ve seen is dominated by clothing and accessories. A full twenty-five percent of the floor space in the Kohl’s I’ve been in are covered with cookery. And good cookery too. I don’t want to go on too long about the kitchen material they have but the Sonoma line is affordable and pretty varied.

As for clothes they have a pretty big selection. Big selection doesn’t mean good though. The primary reason I use Kohl’s is because it’s super affordable. They typically will have an item similar to something else I want and it will be made by one of their cheap in house brands.

Here’s what I use Kohl’s for

-Casual shoes. Sonoma, in addition to cookery, makes shoes. Weird, yes. Decent casual lace up in rich chocolate tones, yes.

-Utilitarian Items. To me that means things that are bought for a function. Hoodies, heavy sweaters, gym pants and shoes. Things whose only purpose is to work, not look good. Things that work AND look good won’t be found here.

-Undergarments. At the end of the day these things, for men at least, don’t need to be expensive or impressive. I hate spending money on things no one will see.

What to avoid 

-Cheaper versions of better lines. The Marc Anthony Line is the perfect example of what I mean. This is meant to be indistinguishable from the better made and designed Claiborne, INC and Ferrar lines. In actuality it looks like a rip off from Ferrar and Claiborne with a sprinkling of Boho chic items like coats and scarves. The only thing I like in this line are the scarves. Not because I’d buy them, they don’t fit my style, but at least they are original.

-The Suits. Croft and Barrow, Apt 9 and whatever else they have there. The one’s I’ve tried have no character at all. It’s mostly navy and black suits and all of them require massive tailoring to look good. The word “affordable” doesn’t apply. Because a thing is cheap doesn’t make it worth buying unless it works. These don’t. I’ve seen them carry Billy London, which is a good modern fit basic suit, and cheaper than Penny’s. That’s the only suit I’d consider from Kohls.

Penny’s has been in the game for a LONG time. The Texas based retailer does less business than Kohl’s but it’s pushing an overall higher quality of clothing items. The emphasis of a Penny’s mens department is everyday casual. That being said they do have a good suit department. True fact, at least as told to me by a source I trust, is that Penny’s used to be the largest seller of mens’ suits in the United States.

Penny’s is the middle ground. It’s the utility knife of department stores. It can be used to good effect for almost any occasion.

What I use Penny’s for

-Suits. My job is a business casual environment but I’m comfortable in suits. Penny’s provides me with a wide selection of suits to choose from. And the one I shop at has a very knowledgeable staff regarding conservative suit style. They have ultra conservative lines like Stafford, middle ground like Claiborne and modern fits like Ferrar. The prices are fair for what’s offered and the fit is ok, they need just minor tailoring. Note, beware crazy lapels on the Ferrar pieces.

-Jeans. They only carry the big and cheaper brands like Levi and Arizona but they also carry more variety than Kohls and for much cheaper than Macy’s. Good first stop to pick up a decent pair of everyday jeans.

-Basic dress accessories.  Stafford makes some very basic but functional accessories. Collar stays are affordable and do their job decently and their tie bars/clips are not bad at all for the price. They have the widest array of pocket squares I’ve seen in a department store as far as color goes. They are all solids made by Stafford I believe but if you need a silk solid this is the place to get it.

What to avoid

-Dress Shirts. They’re not the best quality. Very cheap so if price is an issue you’ll get something around what you paid for. Their Stafford shirts are incredibly classic fit and they puff around the waist badly. They have only three shirts with a French cuff, the quality is fine but the variety is awful. Van Heusen is atrocious. It’s owned by American Apparel which is the largest shirt maker in the world but this brand is terrible. I always find loose threads on Penny’s dress shirts too. The only safe brands are the Ferrar’s and Claiborne’s and Claiborne all seem to have the lined/embroidered type design on them which I do not care for.

-Casual tops. Since their house brands are Ferrar and Claiborne expect everything to be stripped and alternating with black and some other dark color to the point where it’s hard to differentiate. The only casual tops they have that I like are from Decree and that’s only if I’m looking for something casual, hip and borderline clubby but not over the top. Arizona makes an ok flannel top but I don’t have much use for those beyond having just one or two. The overall point is that there really isn’t any style here. It’s fairly soulless with the silver lining being pieces that are bland enough to be used with better outfits.

The God-King of affordable department stores. Penny’s has been around for a long time, Macy’s antediluvian origins date back well into the mid 1800’s. This New York department store is known for being on the pricier side. It’s like a really affordable Nordstrom’s. They do about twice as much business as Penny’s and slightly more than the ultra cheap Kohls.

What I use Macy’s for:

-Nicer Casual Clothes. When I need something for an evening out this is my first and usually last stop. They will almost always have what I want and yes, they will make me pay for it. But If the quality is there than why shouldn’t I be expected to pay a little more? There house brand INC is really pretty good. There are a few exceptions of course but for the most part INC has smart designs that fit very well. Perry Ellis has some items that straddle the line between dressy and casual. They do some really smart outfits.

-Dress Shirts and better quality dress accessories- Calvin Cline is about the best mid ranged dress shirt you can buy in my opinion. The fit is great, the material is a good quality and you aren’t paying a massive amount of money for it. They carry Geoffry Beene too which is a little cheaper than Cline’s but still better than Penny’s or Kohl’s any day(Both lines by the way are better versions of American Apparel products). Plus, Macy’s has lots of sales. You should never be paying full price for these either. Their pocket squares are less varied but they do have some with a bit of design to them. Macy’s also carries the knot style cuff link in packs of three which I think is so much more preferable to the gaudy hunks of metal other retailers offer.

-Inspiration. This is a great place to start when planning an outfit. I come here first, see what the latest offerings are and then check the other retailers above for comparable items. I really liked a Perry Ellis combination Macy’s had on display one day and then checked Penny’s. I found very similar items tucked away in their suit department for a little over half the cost Macy’s was asking for.

What to avoid

-The prices. They can be very high. The suits, which admittedly are of better quality than many of Penny’s, are not so remarkable as to justify the four and five hundred dollar price tags they have. They sell Levi for about forty-five dollars a pair when Penny’s has the same pairs for thirty-nine and comparable pairs for thirty. Watch for sales and take the time to check other retailers before buying.

And that’s how I use my major department stores. I put them all to work to make my wardrobe work. Macy’s styles and quality products, Kohl’s affordability and Penny’s variety. That’s my approach to department store shopping. I’d love to hear how you do it.