Tag Archives: Sears

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]


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 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.


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.


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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Goodbye, JC Penney

Recently, I wrote of my prescription for turning around Sears. My phone has since been ringing off the hook, retail consultants offering to pay me millions for more advice. (What? You don’t believe me? Why, just look at the photo of me in the new gem-encrusted tiara I was able to buy with my riches.)

So, now I’m back, offering advice to JC Penney. Here it is:

Stop, before it’s too late!

Penney has adopted a new strategy. They have moved away from continual sales with coupon enticements and have gone to continual deep discounts with what they seem to think is hipper marketing.

That means no more almost-daily mailings from JCP filled with coupons for this special deal or that special item. Good for them. Those coupons were a bear to keep track of, and I know more than one Penney shopper who always ended up in the store trying to use the wrong one for the wrong item on the wrong day (yes, that was me holding up the line in home goods with my outdated coupon for a turkey roaster). The coupons had enough fine print on them to put scores of optometrists’ children through college.

That’s the good news about this strategy: no more annoying coupons.

Here’s the bad news: the stuff shoppers loved about Penney is now…lost in the mist of mercantile marketing miasma. The confusing sales might be gone, but so are the “shopper cues,” the signs pointing you to the “two for the price of one” T-shirt displays, the “marked down” racks of jeans and khakis, the enticing shelves filled with gewgaws that you might not buy but put you in a buying mood.

On a recent trip to Penney’s for what should have been an easy purchase (a denim skirt), nothing pulled me into a display at all. Not even the jewelry or the casual clothes for women of a certain age. Those beckoned to me in the past.

To go along with this less-is-less marketing strategy, Penney now sends out expensive little booklets promoting each month’s special deals. The first one was reasonably, if not spectacularly, done. This past month’s was filled with…jewelry. As if Penney had decided to hop, skip and jump over their latest marketing efforts and become a standalone shop for the Gollum crowd.

But worst of all in this pantheon of pathetic promo ideas is their television campaign. The only thing I ever remember about their TV ads is a rather unattractive mouth on a less-than-appealing auctioneer. Don’t take my word for it. Watch for yourself.


JC Penney used to be my “go to” store, my first stop at the mall, the one I parked in front of. I knew I could always find comfy casual slacks there, curtains, sheets, towels, the occasional small appliance (ah, that turkey roaster), good costume jewelry and an upscale outfit for that once-a-year formal event. I loved Penney’s.  Now, sadly, not so much. They’re losing me, and I was a loyal shopper.

Way to go, corporate!


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Sears: Forget Consultants, Here’s Your Strategy

I don’t have a degree in marketing, but I love malls and department stores and stores in general. I have a pretty acute sense of where stores’ marketing niches are, the consumers they’re targeting, how they stack up against each other.

Here in Lancaster, PA, the main department stores are JC Penney, Boscov, BonTon and….oh, yeah, Sears. The Sears’ spoke of our wheel-shaped mall has to be the loneliest spot in the universe. Who goes to Sears…except to shop for appliances, Craftsman tools or car parts?

I'm sorry. This logo has to go.

Yes, I know Sears has added the Lands End brand to its clothing offerings, but how many of you out there either didn’t know that or had forgotten? I often only remember when I happen to be in the store for something else.

So it’s no surprise that Sears is in trouble, closing stores across the country. Yes, their woes are also tied to bigger issues, such as the disastrous Kmart acquisition. But part of their problem is they’ve let their market niche languish. They’ve hardly bothered to define it, let alone keep it up to date and sell it to consumers like me.

So, save yourselves a few million, Sears, and listen up to the advice of this savvy mall-crawler….

First, your competition isn’t the other department stores at the malls where you share space. No, you shouldn’t even bother going head-to-head with Penney’s or Macy’s or BonTon or Boscov. It would take so much rebranding, so much reselling and redefining of who you are to get you in that wheelhouse, and there’d be absolutely no guarantee that loyal Penney shoppers are going to march down that mall hallway to pick up some things at your store. That would take a long time with a lot of advertising and a lot of promos and a lot of everything in your marketing toolkit–just to get the shoppers to the door again, let alone buying anything. It ain’t gonna happen soon enough to make a difference.

No, you need to build on what you already have and come up with a regular enticement, some “must haves” to get shoppers in the door again. Stop thinking Penny shoppers. Start thinking of your competition as….Target.

Target has managed to become a trendy, hip, youngish discount store. A discount store that sells clothing, furniture, home goods, toiletries and more. Things you don’t get at department stores plus department store stuff.

You’ve already got a lot of their merchandise. You’ve got a brand name clothing line. You’ve got home goods and then some–unlike Target, you sell appliances and manly merchandise (the tools, the paint, the car stuff) that make you a destination for the Y chromosome crowd. You’ve got a reputation as the people’s department store dating back to the days when your catalogs brought the world to the prairie and the mountains.

Sears and Roebuck--not just a store, a philosophy.

In fact, as my sharp shopper daughter-in-law and I talked about Sears branding, we both almost simultaneously agreed you need to go back to those roots. Forget that crappy 1970s-looking logo. Forget just “Sears.”  You’re Sears & Roebuck, man. Be proud of it. You’re the company that brought America that book of dreams. Dreams that meant the housewife in the boondocks could have the same niceties as the social climbers in the cities. Sears & Roebuck.  Not just a store. A philosophy. You’re not just selling…stuff. You’re selling equality. You need to remind people of that.

So, get some Madison Avenue dudes and dudesses working on a vintage/trendy redesign of a “Sears & Roebuck” logo. Give them marching orders to design some new ads that telegraph to consumers you’re going to give Target a run for their money. You’re back in the dream business, the everybody-can-have-something-nice business. Your slogan needs to communicate: We have it all (implicit subtext: Macy’s and Penney’s don’t). Your image needs to shout young and efficient — put carts in those actors’ hands, and shampoo and soap in the carts along with sweaters and shoes.

Clean up your stores. Add a toiletries department. Get in some hip furnishings, offer CDs and DVDs. Gussy up the Lands End section. Offer bright shopping carts for all that stash folks will be grabbing from the shelves.

You do that and shoppers will not just return. They’ll make Sears the destination store, the one whose lot you park your car in. Look, honey, could you park at Sears, I need to pick up…

This will get customers back fast. Once they’re there, you can keep them with the store re-dos.

No need to thank me (although some gift certs would be nice). That lonely Sears hall at the mall makes me sad. I’d like it to be a happy place again.


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