JC Penney: Inspiration or Cautionary Tale?

19 Apr

I haven’t been to JC Penney in a while. As I remember it from trips with my mom for back to school shopping, the 111-year old department store was an endless maze of post-modern


Racks by Andy Warhol (Source: retail-display-racks.com)

clothing racks and stupid looking pants (really glad my mom didn’t let me get the stupid looking pants).

Not exactly a bastion of progress.

Apparently, the times they are a changin’. According to CiteWorld.com, since late 2012 JC Penney has been using the Apple’s iPod Touch as a primary means of customer service.

“It’s a customer service initiative,” said Kate Coultas, a spokesperson for the 111-year-old retailer. “We want to make the process of shopping at J.C. Penney as easy and seamless as possible. Our associates want to be able to be out on the floor helping customers. It doesn’t help if they are stuck behind the registers. Now, if you are on the floor, you need to have an iPod Touch with you.”

Pretty heady stuff for an old-fashioned company from Kemmerer, Wyoming (if you’ve ever heard of Kemmerer, Wyoming I’ll give you a dollar).

So far, the devices have been a big hit with the company’s salespeople, she said. “Some have nicknamed them ‘Libby,’ for ‘Libby the Liberator’ because they can be assisting customers without being chained down to a register,” said Coultas.

Artist’s rendering of Libby the Liberatory (source: digital-art-gallery.com)

I wish Libby the Liberator was the viking mascot of JC Penney, but I digress. This is all part of JC Penney CEO and former Apple executive Ron Johnson’s attempt to modernize the company. Unfortunately, that strategy has met with mixed results, to say the least (Johnson was fired last week after 17 months on the job). In fact, at least one sales associates is less than thrilled about the new system:

We use iPods in some of the departments now. Often they do not work. If a customer does go to an associate and the associate uses an iPod that’s working for a sale, and then customer wants a paper receipt, we have to go halfway through the store to get the receipt and then take it back to the customer. That is not convenient for the customer. At least we don’t see how it is [on the sales floor].

Sure to cure what ails Ron Johnson (Source: orange-papers.org)

What’s to be learned from this from the technofication (a word I just made up) of the huge retail chain? Obviously, the iPods won’t cure all of JC Penney’s woes – for that they’d have to turn to some sort of late-1890’s miracle elixir. This is a company that’s lost huge chunks of its market share to Macy’s, Kohl’s, and online retailers, and there’s no quick fix. Some other thoughts:

  • Most plans take a long time to come to fruition, but unfortunately you don’t always get that time. Ron Johnson was fired 17 months into his three-year plan for revitalizing Penney’s. So if you’ve got an idea to improve your business, you better start now.
  • Technology won’t always save you, because everyone else has it too.
  • Know your culture. Analysts have been quick to point out how ambitious Johnson’s ideas were – he essentially wanted to turn JC Penney into the Apple Store of clothing. Unfortunately, for a brand and sales force built on family clothes at discount prizes, the gear shift may have been too much, too quick.

I think that last point is particularly important. I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the importance of technology to your business, and I’ll continue to do so. But slowly integrating new things into your business plan will help employees and customers adjust. Try starting with something small that can help you focus your customer service, then build to bigger things that will change the way your business runs.

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