Try this, Penney’s

Yes, I’m kind of obsessed with the department store J.C. Penney. Actually, I’m kind of obsessed with retail icons in general. See this post. And this one. And…  well, you get the idea.

Now, at last, the J.C. Penney board has listened to me. I’m sure it was my blogging and a letter to the Wall Street Journal that caused them to let CEO Ron Johnson, whose changes to the store had led to precipitous declines in sales and stock values, go. What else could have forced the change, really?

Now that they’ve listened to me, the hard work really begins. How do they turn around this retail giant? It’s one thing to halt a store’s slow slide into irrelevancy, which is where Penney was when Johnson took over. Its quite another to try to stop a speeding train careening down a hillside on iced tracks, which is where they are now that Johnson’s plans were being implemented.

The problem, you see, isn’t just that Penney’s lost customers. Penney’s ticked off customers. Made them mad. Luring them back will require the opposite of subtlety.

Okay, I’ll roll up my sleeves and offer more advice. Maybe they’ll listen again.JC-Penney-Testing-Less-Sales-Strategy[1]

ADVERTISE IMMEDIATELY

The average customer isn’t reading the financial pages. She might not know the company just did a big 180. You have to tell her. I suggest three possibilities for ads that should get on the air and in print pronto:

1. The funny message: Play off the theme that it’s now “safe” to go back to Penney’s. I’m sure some Mad Man could come up with something that would have viewers howling with laughter. Caution, though–don’t let the laughs eclipse the underlying message, which should be: Come back, customers, we’ve changed for the better.

2. The straightforward message: Air/print something that merely says “we heard you, we’ve gone back to what you loved best about us, come in again and see.”

3. The apology: As I mentioned above, Penney’s has the distinction of not just losing customers but pissing them off. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the new CEO (who happens to be the fellow who ran the place before Johnson took over) just stare into the camera and apologize to customers, urging them to give Penney’s a try again.

THE STORES THEMSELVES

The problem with urging folks back into the stores, though, is…the stores themselves. If you’ve been near a Penney’s lately, you know they’re now in the midst of construction, putting into place new displays, new “stores within stores” that were the brainchild of the former CEO. This has been a visual and retailing mess as large plastic sheets drape huge parts of the stores, yellow tape roping off others, making them seem more like a crime scene than a place to shop. All this makes inventory hard to find or even see, and it’s been taking an inordinately long time to get it all done.

I don’t know the details of the construction contracts, but here’s what I would do were I CEO: stop any construction immediately, having the crews clean up their mess. Then task individual store managers and employees with restoring order. Get on the phone with each store manager, asking what the status of their construction is. Walk him or her through some ways to get inventory on shelves immediately. Empower local staff to set things up in attractive displays. Worry about uniformity later. The goal now should be: get customers back in the stores, and get inventory back on the shelves for customers to buy. If inventory is slim, get more in–start by going back to big sellers in the past. Your current tactic has to be to stop the slide. The turnaround will come later.

COUPONS OR NOT?

Penney’s used to kill many a tree in their coupon mailing frenzies. It wasn’t a bad idea to cut back on those confusing discounts. But it was a bad idea to get rid of them entirely.

As part of the strategy to aggressively entice customers back to the store, start a one-for-one campaign: for every dollar you spend at Penney’s during a certain few days, you’ll get a dollar of “Penney cash,” to use in the store at a subsequent visit. Yes, put a fuse on those Penney dollars so they don’t last forever, but make them good on any merchandise, on sale or not. Sure, you can put a limit on how many you can earn, too. The idea, however, is to make a bold move to bring folks back.

Another possibility: discount cards that can be swiped by the cashier for a ten or twenty percent discount on all merchandise during a certain period of time. Kohl’s uses these to great effect.

AFTER THE SLIDE IS STOPPED

Once  you get customers back in the store regularly, it’s time to start the hard work of the slow rebuild, the re-evaluation of where Penney’s is and where it needs to be. I know it will shock folks who’ve listened to me rant about the store and its just-ousted CEO, but he did have a right idea in trying to attract a new customer base to Penney’s. (Where he went wrong was ignoring the base that was already there, even treating them with disdain.)

Get moving, J.C., time’s a’wastin’!

Libby Sternberg is a novelist and busybody.

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