The (Fixable) Problem With the J.C. Penney Brand

02/16/2013 3 min read Written by Roman Kniahynyckyj

Did you know? Sam Walton worked at J.C. Penney before founding Wal-Mart? Or that J.C. Penney began selling online in the 1980's?

J.C. Penney piqued my interest when they hired Target CMO Michael Francis. Mr. Francis departed after 8 months with little corporate explanation given. Apple alum and CEO, Ron Johnson, took on marketing duties.

There's no doubt JCP is trying to refresh it's stores with brands like Levi's, Izod, and Liz Caliborne. That's good. All good.The JCP brand refresh has been effective online. It tugged me into a brick and mortar JCP store.

Brick and mortar might be the issue, though. Many JCP stores are attached to suburban malls - many of which are a weird amalgamation of air-brush T-shirt stores, mom and pop stores, baseball card trading outlets and the requisite Victoria's Secret store. Is there any (even dying) mall without a Victoria's Secret store these days?

It may be less of a marketing problem and more of and aging, unsightly physical infrastructure problem. First get people into the suburban mall - which may have changed ownership hands and identities a number of times. Then get people past the air-brush stores and the cellular service peddlers to a national chain. And then get them to buy stuff. You're stuck with the style and feel of the mall whether you like it or not. And I just happened to be in a near dead suburban mall.

Therein lies the rub. With two-thirds of suburban malls suffering from decreased sales or financial distress - is that a place from which you should launch a refreshed brand? Especially, when CEO Ron Johnson has noted that he is committed to not closing any stores? 

Back to my JCP store experience. Initially, I perused the the jewelry counter and the shoe sections - which seemed a little messy and unkempt with a  "factory of sadness" flavor to them. It all felt like very unnecessary stuff - junk. But then I poked around further into the Izod and Levi's enclaves (the stores within a store) and felt a better rhythm to my retail experience.  I ended up bumping (metaphorically, of course) into a sale rack of 650 goose down-fill jackets. Most of them were 3XL but there was a nice lime green XL sized jacket that I ended up purchasing for $14. Bingo. Sweet spot - for me at least. Warmth, value (huge value), and no weird off-brand logo on my jacket. And, based on JCP's online reviews, it seems a number of folks share my sentiments on this jacket.

Interestingly, JCP does have a window of opportunity. With Wal-Mart sweating slow sales and increased payroll taxes taking a toll on consumer spending, JCP, with focused effort, could offer extreme value to consumers. But, they'll need to fix their stores - or, more than likely, get rid of many of them - especially those attached to dying suburban malls. It's an uphill battle. But if JCP can elegantly extricate itself from the suburban mall experience - it may just fix it's brand.

By: Roman Kniahynyckyj

Roman has been helping clients develop and implement revenue enhancing inbound marketing strategies since 2009. Prior to becoming an inbound marketer, Roman was a management consultant with Ernst & Young, Booz Allen Hamilton, BearingPoint, and KPMG. Roman's relentless focus on client satisfaction and client results has garnered accolades from many clients and teams.

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