Growth · Leadership · Omni-channel · Retail · Winning on Experience

JC Penney: Trouble on the home front

Ron Johnson’s tenure at JC Penney is the (horrible) gift that keeps on giving.

Amidst recent rumors of another CEO change, continuing Board drama and potential liquidity issues–not to mention the little challenge of pulling the core business out of its steep descent–now we have Johnson’s much vaunted Home strategy landing with a resounding thud.

And this blunder is, in many respects, the most misguided element of the “transformation”, the biggest opportunity wasted and the most vexing to fix.

The boldness of the new strategy was admirable: rip-up a chronically under-performing large section of the store, add new experiential elements, upgrade presentations and, most critically, bring in exciting, differentiating brands. Yet here too the misguided thinking evident in Johnson’s vision for the rest of the store is made abundantly clear.

After months of construction, tens of millions of dollars in investment and lots of hype, what we discover is a well-organized, beautifully designed space with lots of unproductive, poorly conceived merchandise. And don’t get me started on the Martha Stewart, Macy’s fiasco.

As I’ve opined before, at the core of Johnson’s erroneous strategy was trying to change Penney’s customer base too quickly. That huge miscalculation is evident in spades in the Home re-think. Brands like Jonathan Adler, Bodum, Conran and Ordning & Reda may have immediate recognition and appeal to some affluent consumers and design aficionados, but the notion that they would quickly be relevant to the Penney customer is simply nuts.

Even a brand like Michael Graves, which certainly had some success at Target, might be expected to convert reasonably well at the outset, but it’s hard to imagine it has much drawing power in the grand scheme of what is desperately needed.

Aside from these broader strokes, there are many major tactical blunders. The Bodum shop is a case in point. While the section is distinctively and attractively presented, much of the product is way too expensive. Did somebody really think many people were going to buy $200 coffee makers at Penney’s from a brand they’ve never heard of?  Other choices would be funny if they weren’t so costly. The Bodum shop (and website section) seems to believe the world is ready for a French press revolution. Maybe Williams-Sonoma or Sur la Table can lead that movement, but at Penney’s it’s just a big mark-down waiting to happen.

The Happy Chic by Jonathan Adler shop is also eye-catching, but the product assortment is way too specific to have the impact and productivity it needs. The Michael Graves and Martha Stewart shops are filled with a bunch of random stuff at odd price points.

Throughout the rest of the home section there is ample evidence of Johnson’s specialty store strategy taken too extremes. Some product is just too expensive for Penney’s core (Conran), some product is so narrowly focused in design point of view it can’t possibly be productive or contribute to a coherent view of Penney’s desired positioning.

Another issue throughout much of the new areas is lack of product density. The design does a nice job of showcasing product, but it’s Retail 101 to be mindful of having enough product and enough transactions to give yourself a chance of being profitable on the space. At Apple this “negative space” mentality works when you have strong traffic and products that cost hundreds (or thousands) of dollars.  But when one is selling $15 picture frames, $20 throw pillows and $3 dinner plates, well, not so much.

The investment in space for product demonstrations, design advice and customer service is just sad. It’s clearly an expensive exercise in productivity drain and customer irrelevance.

Some Wall Street analysts have been acknowledging the serious problems with Penney’s home business, but minimizing its magnitude because home represents “only” about 12% of revenue. And given the damage that’s been done to the rest of the business it’s fair to say that in the immediate term it’s hardly the #1 priority. But that misses the broader point.

Let’s remind ourself that prior to the Ron Johnson fiasco, Penney’s did not have a sustainable long-term strategy and plays in a retail market sector that’s been growing slower than inflation. They need a ~30% sales increase and vastly improved margin performance just to get back to where they started pre-Johnson. That means that all aspects of the store have to work. It’s also important to note that the Home store represents more than 12% of the space, and even though Penney’s has a huge opportunity in e-commerce, the reality is that today they have a relatively high fixed cost business and there is tremendous financial leverage in making the brick and mortar Home business productive.

For any department store developing top-of-mind preference and driving cross-shopping is paramount, so success in Home–or any department for that matter– is about more than traditional financial mechanics.

The most vexing issue of course is what does new (kind of) CEO Mike Ullman do now? In the immediate term he’s been focused on the right issues: trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat for the Fall season, driving more urgency and impact through promotions and creating near-term financial flexibility.  And to be fair, it will really be the Spring season before we can get a good read on whether Penney’s is getting any real traction on un-doing the mess that Ullman re-inherited.

Unfortunately for Penney’s the home category may well be the hardest and costliest piece to fix. Going back to where they were (which is largely the path they are now on for the apparel business), is not a viable option. More investment will be needed, either to build consumer interest in the new brands while they evolve the assortments, or to re-envision the space to be consistent with whatever JC Penney 3.0 turns out to be.

Regardless, a few things are clear. First, there are no easy or quick fixes. Second, immediate concerns over leadership (CEO and Board) and liquidity aren’t making the task any easier. Third, and most critically, for Penney’s to claw back lost market share and have any chance to fight and win in an intensely competitive omni-channel world, patience, new thinking and significant investment will be required.

Let’s hope they get that chance.

 

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