A really bad time to be boring · Death in the middle · Retail

JC Penney goes back to the future, but it’s likely too little, too late

At one level, the announcement that JC Penney was going to stop wooing younger customers in favor of focusing on baby boomer moms seems to make a lot of sense.

During the devastating Ron Johnson era, Penney’s was practically driven out of business by trying to execute what I call the customer trapeze way too quickly while simultaneously doing a number of other bone-headed things. In a bid to “contemporize” the brand, Johnson dropped many (it turns out profitable) lines that were deemed old and stodgy in favor of more fashion-forward assortments aimed at attracting younger customers. And sales promptly fell off a cliff. The more-than-a-century-old retailer has been trying to dig itself out of this hole ever since.

In the intervening five years, Penney’s has tried a more balanced approach. Yet despite adding back some customers’ preferred brands, launching new products and services, retooling many aspects of its go-to-market strategy and having hundreds of its competitors’ doors close, the retailer has failed to build any sustained momentum. As I wrote a couple of months back, clearly Penney’s needs to try something new, and unquestionably it needs to do it with great urgency. Unfortunately, this latest gambit is very unlikely to work.

The most obvious problem with a return to focusing on middle-age moms is that it is essentially the strategy Penney’s was executing against before Ron Johnson showed up. And while Johnson set the house on fire, Penney’s was far from lighting things up during the years leading up to the failed “transformation.” In fact, growth and profits had stalled, and the stock was selling at less than half its historical high.

So as Penney’s goes back to the future, the one thing we know for sure is that the market it was trying to succeed in almost a decade ago is now considerably smaller and quite different. On-the-mall, moderate apparel and home stores have been steadily losing share to off-price/value-oriented off-the-mall competitors for many years. More recently, Amazon and other online players have set their sights on the segment as well — and most department stores are struggling mightily to keep pace. By going back to its old customer focus in a market that has shrunk considerably, Penney’s would have to gain more market share than it was able to do when things were far less competitive. That strikes me as a very tall order.

Even under the assumption that a more tightly focused customer strategy has merits, Penney has plenty of other hurdles to overcome. Like most retail brands stuck in the boring middle, it continues to swim in a sea of sameness, with repetitive products, me-too promotions, mediocre service and mostly uninspiring stores. Going deeper on a particular customer segment may provide some incremental upside in the short term, but it is hardly sufficient to make it materially more relevant and remarkable.

The retail formula for growth is, at one level, simple. Target a big enough audience. Increase traffic. Increase conversion. Increase average spending. Increase frequency. Rinse and repeat.

Doubling down on any one customer cohort may hold the promise of performing materially better on one or more of these factors. But given how the particular part of the market Penney’s is returning to has contracted, one has to make some pretty incredible assumptions to believe it can possibly drive meaningful and enduring profitable growth.

Moreover, I would argue that no retailer can sustain itself over the long term without a powerful customer acquisition strategy. And here demographics are hardly JC Penney’s friend. A decade ago Penney’s was struggling partially because it had not done a good job of attracting new, younger customers. It’s no different today as Millennials are sure to become a more significant potential source of volume.

To survive, much less thrive, Penney’s must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. It must avoid, as Jim Collins likes to say, “the tyranny of the or” in favor of “the genius of the and.” A portfolio approach to customer acquisition, growth and retention is at the heart of any good strategy, and Penney’s must find ways to both leverage its historical core and attract the next generation of customers.

Plenty of retailers have suffered from casting too wide a net and ending up not being relevant and remarkable to any group of consumers in particular. Yet brands can cast too narrow a net as well. My fear is that this is exactly what Penney’s is electing to do. From where I sit, it simply cannot afford any more strategic missteps.

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A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.  

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A really bad time to be boring · Death in the middle · Reimagining Retail · Retail

Better is not the same as good for department stores stuck in the middle

As most U.S. department stores reported earnings recently, a certain level of ebullience took hold. Macy’sKohl’s and even Dillard’s, for crying out loud, beat Wall Street expectations, sending their respective shares higher. J.C. Penney, which has failed to gain any real traction despite Sears’ flagging fortunes, continued to disappoint, suggesting that I probably need to revisit my somewhat hopeful perspective from last year. And in the otherworldliness that is the stock market, Nordstrom — the only department store with a truly distinctive value proposition and objectively good results — traded down on its failure to live up to expectations.

Given how beaten down the moderate department store sector has been, a strong quarter or two might seem like cause for celebration–or at least guarded optimism. I beg to differ.

First, we need to remember that the improved performance comes mostly against a backdrop of easy comparisons, an unusually strong holiday season and tight inventory management. There is also likely some material (largely one-time) benefit from the significant number of competitive store closings and aggressive cost reduction programs that most have put in place.

Second, and more importantly, we cannot escape the fact that mid-priced department stores in the U.S. (and frankly, much of the developed world) all continue to suffer from an epidemic of boring. Boring assortments. Boring presentation. Boring real estate. Boring marketing. Boring customer service. And on and on. For the most part, they are all swimming in a sea of sameness at a time when the market continues to bifurcate and it’s increasingly clear that, for many players, it’s death in the middle. It’s nice that some are doing a bit better, but as I pointed out last summer, we should not confuse better with good.

To actually be good — and to offer investors a chance for sustained equity appreciation — a lot more has to happen. And while being less bad may be necessary, it is far from sufficient. Most critically, all of the major players still need to amplify their points of differentiation on virtually all elements of the shopping experience. It’s comparatively simple to close cash-draining stores, root out cost inefficiencies and tweak assortments. It’s another thing entirely to address the fundamental reasons that department stores have been ceding market share to the off-price, value-oriented, fast-fashion and more focused specialty players for more than a decade. And now with apparel and home goods increasingly in Amazon’s growth crosshairs, there has never been a more urgent need to not only to embrace radical improvement, but to really step on the gas.

Without a complete re-imagination of the department store sector — and frankly who even knows what that could actually look like — near-term improvements only pause the segment’s long-term secular decline.

It’s unclear how much the eventual demise of Sears and the inevitable closing of additional locations on the part of other players will benefit those still left standing. It’s unclear whether the current up-cycle in consumer spending will be maintained for more than another quarter or two. What is crystal clear, however, is that incremental improvement in margin and comparable sales growth rates merely a point or two above inflation never makes any of these mid-priced department stores objectively good.

Ultimately, without radical change, it all comes down to clawing back a bit of market share and squeezing out a bit more efficiency in what continues to be a slowly sinking sector riddled with mediocrity. Boring, but true.

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.  

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NOTE: March 19 – 21st I’ll be in Las Vegas for ShopTalk, where I will be moderating a panel on new store design as well as doing a Tweetchat on “Shifting eCommerce Trends & Technologies.”