By ANNE D’INNOCENZIO
NEW YORK — J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson seems unfazed that the department store chain’s mounting losses and sales declines have led to growing criticism of his plan to change the way we shop. Perhaps that’s because this isn’t the first time during Johnson’s 30-year career that he’s attempted what seemed impossible.
People predicted he’d fail at selling high-end housewares and designer dresses at discounter Target, but shoppers still flock there years later for cheap chic goods. Likewise, almost no one believed that the Apple stores he designed to sell the consumer electronics giant’s gadgets would make money. Yet Apple’s retail operations have become the most profitable in the industry.
At the time, both decisions seemed radical. Now, they each are viewed as strokes of genius.
But Johnson’s latest gamble is shaping up to be his biggest. He’s not only aiming to reverse the fortunes of Penney, a 110-year-old chain that has had sales declines in four of the past five years as it’s struggled to adapt to changing consumer tastes and shopping habits. He’s also attempting to do something no other retailer has before: reinvent the department store.
Since leaving Apple to become Penney’s CEO in November, Johnson has been overhauling everything from the retailer’s pricing to its merchandise to its stores. He got rid of most sales. He’s brought in hip brands. And he’s replacing rows of clothing racks with small shops that make the stores feel like outdoor mini malls.
But since Penney started the changes, the chain has reported three consecutive quarters of big losses on steep sales declines. Its stock has lost more than half its value. Its credit rating is in junk status. And critics are beginning to doubt that Johnson has what it takes to make the chain cool.
Johnson, 53, a Midwest native who speaks about his vision for J.C. Penney Co. with boyish enthusiasm, is undeterred: “Lots of people think we’re crazy. But that’s what it takes to get ahead.”
Virtually no one questioned Johnson’s savvy when it was announced in June 2011 that he was leaving his role as Apple Inc.’s senior vice president of retail to take over the top job at Penney, a chain that had gained a reputation in recent years of having un-hip, boring stores and merchandise. To the contrary there were lofty expectations for the man who had made Apple’s stores hip places to shop and before that, pioneered Target Corp.’s successful “cheap chic” strategy.
Johnson, who says that his biggest inspirations in life are “sunrises” and “smiles,” spent several months before becoming Penney’s CEO traipsing across the globe to find ideas on how to transform the company. On the itinerary: meetings with executives at trendy retailers and designers such as Gap, J. Crew, Diane Von Furstenberg and Ralph Lauren.
During these trips, Johnson hatched an idea to make Penney stores appealing not only to its core of middle-income shoppers, but also to new groups of younger and higher-income customers. Johnson decided to focus on three areas: price, merchandise and the stores.
Johnson started as Penney’s CEO in November 2011. In his first couple of months in the role, Johnson hired big-name executives that he trusted. Among them, Michael Francis, a top Target executive that he’d met while he worked there, was brought in as president to help redefine Penney’s brand.
His boldest move came on Feb. 1 of this year when he rolled out new pricing in Penney’s 1,100 stores. That’s virtually unheard of in retail, where significant changes are typically tested in a few locations for several months before being rolled out nationally.
His plan was designed to wean customers off the markdowns they’d become accustomed to, but that eat into profits. He ditched the nearly 600 sales Penney offered throughout the year for a three-tiered strategy that permanently lowered prices on all items in the store by 40 percent, and offered monthlong sales on select items and periodic clearance events throughout the year.
Penney also stopped giving out coupons and banished the words “sale” and “clearance” in its new “fair and square” advertising campaign. The ads were colorful and whimsical: In one spot, a dog jumped through a hula hoop that a little girl held. The text read: “No more jumping through hoops. No coupon clipping. No door busting. Just great prices from the start.”
Johnson’s plan received a warm reception at first. Investors began pushing Penney’s stock up after he announced the plan in late January: It rose nearly 25 percent to peak at $43 in the days after the plan was rolled out in February. Analysts used words like “visionary” and “revolutionary” to describe the plan.
The honeymoon didn’t last. After most of Penney’s coupons and sales disappeared, so did its customers. And the ads didn’t help: They were praised for being entertaining, but criticized for not explaining the new pricing.
Wall Street didn’t like the changes any more than Main Street did. A day after it posted the loss, Penney’s stock fell nearly 20 percent — its biggest one-day decline in four decades — to $26.75. That same month, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services lowered its credit rating to junk status.
So six months after he rolled out Penney’s plan, Johnson tweaked pricing. On Aug. 1 — just days before Penney posted another big loss on a second consecutive quarter of disappointing revenue — Johnson eliminated one tier of the pricing plan: the monthlong sales. He also brought back another taboo word: clearance.
With pricing in place, Johnson shifted his focus to Penney’s stores and merchandise. This fall, Penney began replacing nearly half of its merchandise in stores with new lines like Betsey Johnson’s Betseyville, which features trendy items such as $45 leopard print platform pumps and $24 lace rompers.
To showcase Penney’s new merchandise, Johnson also reimagined its stores into mini malls of sorts. He plans to divide stores into 100 shops that highlight different brands or types of merchandise. Each shop will be like its own store, with different merchandise and signage.
Penney is starting to see some positive results from the makeover it began. The company says so far that it has converted about 11 percent of the floor space to shops-within-stores. The shops’ average sales are more than double the sales in the rest of the store.
And some customers are beginning to come back. Michael Pelaez, a 27-year-old who rarely shopped at Penney before the new shops opened, says he likes the retailer’s new Levi’s shop and its predictable pricing. “It’s forcing me to browse,” says the pharmaceutical supplier worker who lives in Hialeah, Fla. “What used to be an hour and a half at the mall has turned out to be an hour and a half at J.C. Penney.”