It wasn’t that many decades ago that Sears was the undisputed retail leader in the U.S. Kmart, known for its “blue light specials,” was #2, operating under such namesakes as S.S. Kresge, Jupiter Stores, The Sports Authority, Builders Square and Waldenbooks.
Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney constantly battled for the #3 and #4 spots in the top ten.
Sears and Kmart have since joined forces, and both are struggling to meet expectations. Major change appears to be their only salvation. Montgomery Ward waited too long to initiate change and was forced to close its doors in 2000 after 128 years of service.
Today, J.C. Penney dominates headlines as it offers more confusing changes than politicians make promises. However, change for the sake of change is seldom, if ever, the solution to growing losses, plummeting sales, elite competition and fickle customers.
J.C. Penney has been changing everything from its merchandise and stores to its top leadership. CEO Ron Johnson, the former Apple executive who came on board a year ago, rolled out a new pricing plan in February 2012. Both vendors and customers were confused by the new pricing policy, and apparently all have suffered as a result of a 70% plunge in store sales. There is no shortage of competitors to make up that shortfall. Critics are questioning whether the chain will ever regain its footing.
The pricing strategy change appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. You might consider keeping an eye on your local J.C. Penney store in the coming months to witness a desperate attempt to bring J.C. Penney back to its former glory days.
It has already attempted an offer of free haircuts as children prepared to return to school in September. That was a nice touch but certainly tame compared to what lies ahead. Look for the these changes in the near future:
- For the month of November, J.C. Penney is offering free photo sessions: free sittings, free 8×10, and free digital copy and greeting cards for 50 Cents each.
- J.C. Penney ditched hundreds of coupons, discounts and annual sales in favor of everyday low pricing even though this move has clearly been a failure thus far.
- It plans to add 100 mini-shops with various designers inside 700 of its 1,100 stores by late 2014.
- Surrounding those shops will be 15-foot-wide aisles called “streets.” Along those pathways will be couches, ice cream and coffee bars, and wood tables with built-in iPad tablet computers shoppers can use. CEO Johnson calls these “places to engage.” In the middle of it all, a Town Square will offer seasonal merchandise and activities like yoga and Pilates classes.
- In the near future, you may very well find it next to impossible to find a cash register or check out kiosk anywhere in a J.C. Penney store. It plans to incorporate RFID chips into every product in the store. This will allow any and all transactions to be performed anywhere, anytime, and by any employee in the store using devices like Apple’s iPhone or iPod. Personally, I’m not certain I’m comfortable with that. I wonder where they’ll keep the bags?
CEO Johnson said, “We are here to transform J.C. Penney, not to improve J.C. Penney. It will be just like an Apple store.” He went on to say that he plans to basically create a mall within a mall, with J.C. Penney’s 100 specialty shops.
This is just my personal opinion, but I truly get the feeling that J.C. Penney is simply grasping for straws at this point. While change is a wonderful, and often necessary strategy, it’s not always the “end all” for dealing with the many challenges we face in today’s chaotic world.
In this case, the radical strategies J.C. Penney has in mind may very well take it down the path that led to the demise of Montgomery Ward.
I would suggest that you embrace change wholeheartedly but do so with caution, research, benchmarking, and a well-planned strategy.
At the moment, I struggle to visualize a successful new J.C. Penney … a department store/Apple store/Starbuck’s/Pilates studio/juice bar/mall. We’ll see.