Hubris Maximus – Ron Johnson and JCP

Unsurprisingly, Ron Johnson, the former Apple retail executive, has finally been dumped by the J.C. Penney board after 17 disastrous months, as CEO at the mid-tier department store. He took the Texas-based company from a profit in 2011 to a staggering loss in 2012.

William Ackman the activist hedge fund manager (who owns an 18% stake in the ailing JCP), pushed for Ron Johnson to take over the plodding retail behemoth and got his wish to huge fanfare. He touted Johnson, because of his success at Apple and stint at Target as the divine solution to turnaround JCP. No one doubted the need for an overhaul and Johnson provided a compelling sales pitch of a reimagined JCP.

Entrance to the Joe Fresh Department at JCP

Entrance to the Joe Fresh Department at JCP

Johnson was given free rein to continue living in California and play chess with the lives of thousands of employees, vendors and shareholders while disappointing loyal customers. He laid off thousands, stopped sales promotions and created slick Target-esque marketing before changing lack-luster product lines.

This was a classic case of  big-city-smarty-pants going to show those country bumpkins, how to run a better company. Johnson’s attitude was arrogance unchained and a sense of self-infallibility. This is a perfect case study in “Hubris Maximus” for the B-schools. Ackman imparted and granted supernatural powers on a big coastal ego that had no clue how to create and sell apparel and home products. Let face it, anyone can be a genius (pardon the pun he invented the “Genius Bar” in Apple stores) when you are selling the world’s most coveted products. Apple products will sell out of a shack, peddled on the street or at any ordinary retailer. He didn’t create the magic of Apple, he ran their stores.

A JCP turnaround requires more than making physically appealing stores (he succeeded with better visual merchandising); it is a product issue, reinvention of many private label brands and establishing meaningful creative partnerships that would inspire existing customers and attract new ones. There are a few bright lights, but for the most part the new products, like the revamped Liz Claiborne department, is nothing more than make-up on a very big corpse.

William Ackman isn’t the only guy to hire someone who breathes his same rarefied air. So many companies, only want to hire from their social circles, élite schools or MBA’s without regard to their actual credentials and cultural sensitivities to get the job done. They like smelling their own and like-minded perfume.

Better visual merchandising didn't substitute for the traffic driven by promotions.

Better visual merchandising didn’t substitute for the traffic driven by promotions.

The key to the JCP turnaround was respecting the desires of their loyal customers, a willingness to listen and learn before you shoot, testing before your roll out, building meaningful brands and inspiring and empowering your employees. Success was never going to happen with the blind ego of a mere mortal. Ackman made a fool’s bet and lost his shirt.

Dix&Pond is the blog of Creative and strategic consulting for retail and wholesale apparel, shoe and consumer product companies. Follow me to get the latest posts

JCP Product Report Card

Ron Johnson was hired in November 2011 as the new CEO to turnaround JC Penney. It’s time for his annual performance review and the results are decidedly mixed.

No doubt, he set a lofty goal to transform a poky middle-income retailer into “America’s favorite store.” He changed the pricing structure from hundreds of yearly promotions to everyday low prices. As I have said before, with all Johnson’s deserved bravado (from his stints at Apple and Target), he can’t change human nature and the love of the deal. Consequently, his sales are in free-fall.

He has had success tidying up acres of monotonous space and carving it into more appealing brand-specific shops. Some areas are downright Nordstrom-like.

My focus of this review is the product-to-date. A retail brand experience has 3 core parts, price, presentation and product. The latter is clearly the hardest nut.

Middle and low-end retailers have to create or partner with vendors for exclusive merchandise to compete with focused specialty retail and better department stores. The wholesale market for branded apparel has disappeared, as retailers increasing filled square footage with their own private label product. Upper-end department stores carry a mixture of coveted wholesale brands and complement it with their own designs.

It is impossible for JCP to create compelling private product across an entire spectrum and cater to a divergent customer base. They are clearly trying to serve two low-income masters, the loyal aging customer and the young growing family. The store experience has big highs and lows, depending on who you are.

 Most specialty retailers focus on a category or a defined target consumer. For instance, Victoria’s Secret focuses on creating intimate apparel and beauty products with one taste level.  Even though Target is a department store, they have a contemporary vision for all their fashion products. They don’t cater to a range of tastes.  

Unless JCP is able to harness the best design talent in the world, they will never achieve product greatness across the board. It is very tough to build and manage a massive creative engine and serve many masters.

They will only succeed if the store experience can supersede “acceptable,” but not exciting product. JCP doesn’t have a soul. It doesn’t have brand authenticity, except Sephora. They are hitting on the big trends but, most of the products feel like lukewarm versions of someone else’s good idea. Average grade C+.

Here is a product report card:

JCP 4th Quarter Product Report Card

Dix&Pond is the blog of Creative and strategic consulting for retail and wholesale apparel, shoe and consumer product companies.



JC Penney Ante

Update June 19, 2012

The first casualty of the “dream team” assembled by Ron Johnson to turn Penney’s around is out. Michael Francis the former Target exec hired by Johnson as president in October 2011, is leaving the company. Someone had to take the fall. He leaves with more than $15 million in salary, severance, etc., not bad for 8 months work. In May, they reported a 20% drop in sales. I still contend it comes down to great product before illusionary marketing.

May 2012

I wrote this original post in February. Yesterday Penney’s came out with a$163 million dollar loss, which was more than double what analysts expected. The COO said there was a 10% drop in store traffic, 5% drop in conversion and a 5% drop in spending per customer. All of this happened in spite of their recent national ad blitz. In my opinion the cart came before the horse on their “everyday low price” strategy. The exciting, modern ads sent people to see the same old zombie merchandise assortment, without a coupon!

I’m rooting for them, as I applaud their gumption to reinvent moderate department store retail. It will be a challenge in their sector as there aren’t many coveted wholesale brands in their level of the market. Retailers effectively put them out of business a long time ago with their own private label. It all comes down to the product, and they will have to create it.

February 2012:

On a visit to J.C. Penney’s this week,  I was struck by the enormity of the renewal project Ron Johnson (the former Apple executive, new Penney’s

J. C. Penney’s February 2012 Promotion

CEO) has ahead of him. February marks the beginning of the huge new initiative to make this retail behemoth brand relevant. Undoubtedly, he is filled with optimism as he comes from two companies that made their own outsized luck, Target and Apple. These two companies have strong identities and strategies, that rewarded them with brand greatness. Target invented the “hip mass retailer” with their real designer collaborations and cool marketing. No mass retailer had ever taken this approach. Apple has arguably the most dynamic and transformational product line ever created; customers will line up and sleep in the cold to be first to get their new introductions. Ron Johnson is “betting the ranch” that he can transform an enormous, faceless, moderate department store into an exciting retail brand experience.

He started by cutting back endless promotions in exchange for everyday low prices. The jury is out on this strategy for me, as consumers react to a call-to-action by a promotion and love the “art of the deal”. Walmart has everyday low prices, but they struggle in fashion categories such as apparel, as uninspired design isn’t desirable at any price. Will the consumer feel the everyday low prices are simply an inexpensive store, with inferior merchandise?

The store felt more colorful and bold contemporary graphics were placed around the perimeter, defining departments.. They have taken to the airwaves with slick, modern ads à la Target or Gap in their heyday. Do these images promise something that the stores are not yet ready to deliver? See Penney’s website.

A colorful presentation by the mall entrance.

It all boils down to the product. There is SO much apparel in their stores and the consumer can’t be fooled. The problem is that most of it is in-house, private label with meaningless labels. There were pockets of appealing fashion, like the “on-trend” women’s active apparel area. Shoes hit on the dominant trends. Mannequins in the dress department were outfitted with flimsy garments, some with puckered seams. Housekeeping was unevenly clean, very sloppy or absent in some areas.

The best thing they have going for them is still the Sephora department. (I still marvel that they were able to score the sizzling beauty brand.) The long-term strategy is to reassort the store into compelling departments of viable brands. The problem is marquee affordable brands don’t really exist anymore. Over the years, as retailers started making their own insular products they effectively trumped most of the moderate wholesalers. They shut themselves off from the creativity and variety of an open market.

Target’s strategy isn’t new anymore. Real designer collaborations are still a successful way to add authenticity and design credibility to a retailer, that makes most of their own products. There is virtually no way to get credibility without doing collaborations, as there aren’t wholesale fashion brand names in their price points, that create apparel, accessories and home products that consumers crave. When was the last time a 35-year-old woman waited in line for new Alfred Dunner apparel (one of JC Penney’s wholesale brands), like they did for the Missoni collaboration at Target? J. C. Penney will fail if they try to be “Target cool” or safely, mature Kohl’s. I think the opportunity is to position themselves as the “Nordstrom for the mass market”, a fashion department store with some real strength in shoes, bags, beauty, accessories, apparel and home. Nordstrom has the ability to tap the entire creativity of the better and designer wholesale markets. They offer established and up-and-coming brands and punctuate them with their own quality private labels. Penney’s doesn’t have the advantage of being able to access premier fashion brands.

Penney’s is in a game of product poker and the consumer won’t fall for the bluff. They will have to allow real creativity and autonomy to the various in-house design groups. The customer will reward them for a shopping experience that ups-the-ante with some authentic fashion risks and unexpected offerings. It is all about the product.

Dix & Pond is the blog of Dix & Pond Consulting

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