CARS HOMES JOBS

Penney chief builds on Apple experience

Thursday, November 1, 2012
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The first thing I noticed were the wider aisles. Then clothes arrayed on tables, not jam-packed on racks crammed close together. The whole store seemed light and airy — and even hip.

This wasn’t the J.C. Penney typically found in the mall. And that was the point.

Ron Johnson, now a year at the helm of the century-old department store chain, is on a mission to dramatically change the company — “and hopefully retail,” he says.

“Ultimately, stores are about merchandise, and if you want to win, you’ve got to reinvent the content and the service and the presentation,” Johnson told 300 analysts invited to Penney’s Texas headquarters in September to tour its new-store prototype. I sought out a transcript of the meeting, posted on the company’s website, to understand what I had encountered at the local mall store.

“We’re going to redefine the way America shops through a whole new interface for retail and a new experience,” Johnson says, the words “interface” and “experience” giving away the decade he spent at Apple Inc., where he launched the wildly successful brick-and-mortar Apple Store.

In fact, the redesigned Penney stores, as planned by Johnson, are Applesque: sleek and spare but packed with apps. And the apps here are brand-name sales areas that began to appear within the stores in late summer.

They are like Sephora, the cosmetics shop added to Penney stores over the past few years — only the new ones will come more rapidly.

Shops for Levi’s, i jeans by Buffalo and The Original Arizona Jean Co. debuted Aug. 1; added Sept. 1 were shops for Liz Claiborne, Izod and jcp, a new private Penney brand of casual separates for men and women. Next year, cheap-chic Canadian apparel chain Joe Fresh will open in the spring; Giggle, an upscale infants’ boutique, is expected in the fall.

Johnson projects that a year from now, 40 branded shops will be within the company’s 700 larger stores. By 2015, there could be 100 — and not every one will be focused on apparel.

Already, he says, the new shops are reporting higher sales than the rest of the store — a welcome sign for a company that posted a loss of $136 million in the first half of the year and saw foot traffic decline 12 percent in the second quarter ended July 28.

Some of this year’s woes are due to a shift in pricing strategy, which Johnson implemented to get away from a constant reliance on coupons and markdowns. But the changes were confusing and likely alienated core customers who sought out bargains at the overstuffed sales racks.

Today, those racks are fewer in number, replaced by brightly colored merchandise folded neatly on tables and shelves. At the jcp women’s shop, Johnson’s sensible, everyday pricing is evident on a soft winter-weight sweater, priced at $20.

Two older women, out of place among the orange, turquoise, fluorescent pink and lime hues, are overheard to huff about there being “no adult colors here.” They leave the jcp shop but I don’t follow them to see if they leave the store.

“It’s been a very hard year,” Johnson repeatedly told the analysts in Texas. “ … But I want you to understand there was no choice than to choose a year of transformation to get to here, and in the long run we’re going to be better off, because we’re going to jumps-start the new JCP.”

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily those of the newspaper. Reach her at marlenejkennedy@gmail.com.

 
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