Apples and Oranges: JCP learns the hard way

Following the travails of JCP (the retail presence formerly known as JC Penney), it’s no surprise that CEO Ron Johnson is out of a job.

Johnson, who formerly headed Apple’s retail division, was brought in less than 2 years ago with much excitement and fanfare to remake struggling JC Penney.

He was certainly a breath of fresh air–redo the stores, change the logo, change the business model (no more discounts and regular sales). What could be wrong with that?

Well, a lot, actually.

Johnson was correct in thinking he had to shake up the old Penney’s. The trouble was he shook things up so much that the old brand was unrecognizable and the new one was indistinguishable in the retail landscape. We knew it wasn’t the old Penney’s, we knew they no longer had sales to drive us into the store on certain days (a tradition that goes back as long as retail’s been around)–yet we didn’t know what JCP stood for or why we should shop there.

We know Nordstrom’s stands for service, Target for cheap chic, WalMart for just plain cheap, Macy’s for reasonably priced fashion and lots and lots of special sales.  But JCP didn’t stand for anything, except what it wasn’t—which alienated those few loyal customers who HAD been purchasing from the store recently.

I’m sure Penney’s board of directors thought they couldn’t go wrong with the rockstar who set up Apple’s stores. But Apple’s retail operations are a physical manifestation of an existing strong brand–they continue and extend the Apple brand we are all familiar with and expecting to see.

Not only did JCP not have that kind of brand, it didn’t have a core offering of strong products to anchor it’s stores and drive traffic, the way Apple does.

In fact, there isn’t much that JCP and Apple have in common, except for a few common ex-employees.

This fiasco is another reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Start with your customers, understand what they want and what they DON’T want. Understand that every action has an equal and opposite reaction–try to anticipate how major changes will affect and possibly alientate your loyal customer base.

And don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Everyone loves a sale. Look at Black Friday or Cyber Monday if you don’t believe it. Why mess with what people want and love?

Instead, make decisions that build on your successes, rather than mixing up what’s already working, as small as it might be. Fruit salad, anyone?

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