J.C. Penney Co. is suffering an identity crisis, and one that began before the disastrous term of Ron Johnson back in June of 2011. The Penney brand got old and tired. Pretty simple. Johnson had the sexy resume line item of coming right out of Apple. If anyone could revive the retailer, it would be him. We all know what happened—the implosion came fast and furious. But why?
One of my favorite quotes is, “It’s not change that people are afraid of, it’s the pace of change.” This saying applies to personal situations, workplaces, and your customers. Ron Johnson moved too fast. He tried to apply the Apple ultra-hip, no price compromise model to a store best known for its men’s khakis. It was too big of a stretch. And the Penney’s core customer is not the same as the Apple customer.
The consequence was two-fold: both Johnson’s personal brand and the J.C. Penney brand took a hit. In both cases, perhaps non-recoverable. Enter Marvin Ellison. In a recent interview with the Dallas Business Journal, Ellison revealed his plans for turning around the company and rekindling the damaged relationship with his core customer.
My first reaction to the article was that it was a little underwhelming, a little lacking in a sense of urgency, and a little elementary. Revamp the bedding department. Improve the online shopping experience. Not exactly Apple-esque. But safe. And while safe might be boring, I have to admit it’s probably the best approach for Ellison to take. Ron Johnson made a mistake that Ellison has not. He didn’t consider the customer. He thought what worked at Apple, with a completely different customer demographic, would work at JCP. There was no consideration of the customer. And the customer felt it. The change in what they knew and trusted from the Penney brand came too fast, with no warning and no explanation. The retailer was in trouble, and Johnson made it worse.
Ellison can’t afford to make the same mistake. He can only hope to undo the damage. Proceed with caution. Go back to the drawing board. And then hope he has a customer base left that will still be loyal. I like his plans to bring in a celebrity exclusive with Michael Strahan and the Sephora store-within-a-store concept. Will it be enough to keep the stores treading water long enough to apply some bolder moves down the line? Perhaps. Will the storied retailer go the way of Sears or Montgomery Ward? Likely. Either way, Penney and other retailers can learn some valuable lessons about staying true to your brand promise. Change is okay, if introduced and executed in a mindful way. With so many opportunities to engage in conversations with your stakeholders today, there is no excuse not to talk with them. And when you do introduce change it will be as a result of your customer being heard. That will go a long way towards rekindling those lost relationships and positioning your company for long-term success.