JC Penney makeover still bloody painful
The retailer's struggles continue, and it must act fast to stop the hemorrhaging.
By Susan Aluise
"Genius is an infinite capacity for giving pains," Oscar Wilde wrote. That just about sums up how J.C. Penney (JCP) shareholders are starting to feel about CEO Ron Johnson's strategy to transform the struggling 110-year-old retailer by fusing competitors' merchandising and pricing strategies with the vibe of Apple's (AAPL) Genius Bar.
Just six months into Penney's extreme makeover, one thing is abundantly clear: Ron Johnson's experiment is not going well.
Last week's sudden departure of JCP president Michael Francis, the highly regarded former Target (TGT) executive charged with drawing up a new merchandising and pricing strategy to compete with Wal-Mart (WMT) and others, is just the latest tremor to shake the retailer since it unveiled its new strategy on Jan. 25.
In a tersely worded statement, the company said little more than that Johnson is assuming Francis' duties and will not seek a replacement.
However, Johnson was more candid about the changing of the JCP guard in an interview with Women's Wear Daily's David Moin: "The marketing I largely left" to Francis, Johnson told the fashion industry newspaper. "The fact that it hasn't resonated -- I had to get involved."
Francis' departure was the company's second high-profile executive exit in the past 70 days. CFO Michael Dastugue, a 21-year JCP veteran who had held the CFO job for only 15 months, left the company in mid-April.
So last month, it fell to his interim replacement, COO Mike Kramer, to help Johnson explain JCP's colossal first-quarter earnings miss. The company reported a $163 million loss, compared with a $64 million profit for the same quarter last year -- more than double the loss analysts had expected. The top line was ugly, too. The $3.2 billion revenue is 20% lower than last year's.
And it gets worse: Same-store sales during the quarter fell by nearly 19%. Its margins and store traffic also fell markedly.
After hitting a 52-week high of $43.13 two weeks after Johnson unveiled the new strategy, shares have hemorrhaged half their value. JCP currently is trading around $21.50, having dropped 4% since news of Francis' exit broke last Tuesday. Another pain for investors: JCP suspended its dividend.
Penney's performance was hardly what Johnson had in mind when he and Francis launched the extreme makeover at a posh party in Manhattan in January. That makeover included taking a page from Target's playbook by launching new budget collections from designers like Nanette Lepore (whose real brand graces the racks at Neiman Marcus) and featuring Martha Stewart's home collection.
Penney stores would also be revamped to look like the retail stores Johnson launched at Apple, including a variation on the tech retailer's Genius Bar concept.
But at the core of Johnson's transformation strategy was JCP's new three-pronged Fair and Square pricing scheme: everyday regular prices, "monthlong values" and "best prices" available on the first and third Fridays of every month. JCP customers traditionally have been attracted to the retailer's many sales and coupons. Johnson believes they need to be "weaned off" of those old habits and retrained to buy products at everyday prices.
JCP planned to pony up $80 million a month to advertise the new pricing scheme, the centerpiece of which were TV ads featuring comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. But many customers found the ads confusing, and the absence of sales and coupons were a good reason to shop elsewhere.
The company has since reintroduced the once-taboo word "sale" into its vocabulary, replacing "monthlong values."
Johnson remains committed to his strategy, attributing the early disappointments to a failure to "communicate pricing strategy to customers."
But here's the thing: Customers loved the sales and the coupons. Johnson admits they "were a drug" that drove traffic. But that hasn't dampened his determination to force JCP shoppers to give up their coupon addiction and go cold turkey.
Forcing change is an epic achievement, if you can accomplish it. The task is far easier if you've cornered the market on a hot tech toy like an iPod or iPad. Johnson had that advantage when he was in the fast and frenzied process of launching Apple Stores. He doesn't have that edge at Penney.
It's only logical that shareholders are getting more than a little antsy about Johnson, who was paid a whopping $53 million last year simply on the promise of turning the company around, as InvestorPlace editor Jeff Reeves discusses here.
Trying to make consumers "realize" that what they want to buy and how they want to buy it is wrong and is, at best, like herding cats. Shareholders will be better served if Penney's "genius" hits pause on his new mantra and replays that time-tested retail motto "the customer is always right."
But until that happens, I'd avoid JCP and all the pains that go with it.
As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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I've been a Penney's shopper for many years. I was pleased to hear they had developed a new marketing philosophy until it was revealed. The stores look exactly the same with few changes except some needed display updates at our local store.
The advertising is very chic but it does not relate to the stores!
And the pricing formulation is weird.
It appears Penney's management does not know their customer. It's middle-America, people!
All you need to do is bring back the coupons, seniors and everyone else loves the coupons.
Put it in the paper and start sending it to card members and i know you'll be good again...
Bring back the old ads it was better then what you have now!!!!!
JCP,you'd better get back to what the consumers want,are you listening? Sales and discount coupons.The new strategy is not going to work.Face facts.
JCP began their changes many years ago. I worked for JCP as a young man 33 years ago. Their philosophy changed during the 11 years that I worked for them. In the beginning, there was pride in what you did for the company and certainly an expectation of good customer service that is not relevant in any retail store these days. By the time I left working for them they had removed so much of what we provided in the beginning, Good Customer Service. After closing their smaller stores in small but geographically important communities that depended on the good quality merchandise that was JCP offered, I stopped shopping there completely. The store I worked at closed only a few years after I left for a better position in another company. It hurt the community a great deal.
I tried to buy a pair of shoes that were on sale at Christmas but since they were the 'floor model' one pair had more obvious usage than the other. After a long time of trying to chase someone down to help us, I brought this to their attention and asked for a little more off the shoes since the sale price was still quite high. The girl didn't even look at the shoe and said 'No, thats the price'.
They have NO CUSTOMER SERVICE anymore. NO ONE CARES. Before this visit to the store in December 2011 I had not been there in a long time and asked my husband 'What the hell is going on here?'. I have not been back and I never will.
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