New CEO Ron Johnson’s first big move to re-invent JC Penney was to eliminate their intensely promotional high/low pricing strategy. The key elements are:
- Moving most products to “fair and square” every day pricing
- Establishing month-long themed value pricing for certain key items
- Simplifying and creating regular break dates for permanent markdowns.
To break-through the sea of sameness that envelops the slow growth moderate department stores space, Penney’s clearly needs to take bold action. And any student of retail knows that other needed changes to product assortments, in-store experience and digital strategy will take multiple years to fully implement. So what should we make of this “radical” new pricing initiative?
First, anyone who knows retail knows how foolish a high/low pricing strategy seems. The amount of money spent advertising events in weekly circulars and various broadcast media is enormous (and increasingly ineffective). The payroll and collateral costs of constantly changing in-store signing is a major line item. And “forcing” consumers to wait for a sale or have a coupon or get your store credit card to obtain the best price is seemingly a big customer dissatisfier.
So going to “fair and square” everyday pricing would seem to be a win for the consumer and a major improvement to any retailer’s earnings. Why not emulate Nordstrom and get both great Net Promoter scores and have an advertising to sales ratio that is the envy of the competition? It’s a slam dunk, right?
Well, not so fast Skippy.
First of all, unlike Nordstrom, every promotional retailer like Penney’s (and Sears and Macy’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond, etc.) has taught their customers–over many, many years–that their “regular” price is a sucker price. Reversing this perception will not happen quickly, no matter how creative your new ad campaign is and no matter how much money you throw at it in the first few months.
Second, every retailer has a customer segment that is intensely deal driven. This group refuses to buy unless they are convinced they have gotten the best possible price. And they believe they can ferret that out. They love the thrill of the hunt. Buying something without some special incentive is an anathema to them.
History shows–whether you are Sears, Macy’s or Saks–that when you pull back on promotions this segment’s business drops like a rock. If they are a tiny fraction (or an unprofitable piece) of your sales, it’s not a big issue. If, as I suspect is the case at JCP, they are a meaningful profit contributor, the short-term hit is significant and they will be hard to win back.
Third, like it or not, promotional marketing creates urgency to buy. Major events with limited time offers drive traffic. In-store messages that shout a great deal increase conversion. Over time hopefully Penney’s can teach their consumers that every day is a good day to check out their store and that there is no reason to shop around for a better deal. In the immediate term sales will suffer.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the math on everyday pricing is tough. While it is true that most consumers buy at the lowest promotional price, it is also true that there are plenty of customers who pay full price (or receive a lesser discount). To achieve the same gross margin percentage would mean setting an everyday “fair and square” price that is above the lowest historical promotional price. But by doing that, you will be uncompetitive with your direct competitors.
An informal price check I did yesterday (at the mall closest to Penney’s corporate headquarters) revealed that Penney’s price on several key national brands was several dollars higher than Macy’s and Sears. For consumers that pay attention to such things, this will undermine JCP’s pricing integrity and cost them business. This also creates an opportunity for Penney’s competitors to attack them directly on the one major initial plank of their new strategy.
The other alternative is to set prices to be consistently competitive day in and day out. Doing so will drive Penney’s gross margin rates down, which will require a very significant increase in sales just to maintain the gross margin dollar productivity at last year’s levels–which weren’t at all impressive.
Penney’s has acknowledged that they expect to take a near-term sales hit as they implement their new pricing strategy. And everyone recognizes that pricing is just one piece of a multi-faceted, multi-year transformation.
My fear is that this pricing change is much more of a swing for the fences move then the new management team realizes and that the first few innings of this new game will be far more brutal than expected.
While unconfirmed, initial reports are that sales having taken a bigger hit than management anticipated, which could lead to inventory issues and a huge loss of momentum for the new leadership at Penney’s.
I applaud Ron Johnson’s willingness to go big and bold. However, I expect his credibility and tenacity will soon be tested.
In Part 2 I explore what else Penney’s new strategy must entail.