“The Rocky Road to Reinventing Retail”

Yesterday, I attended “The Rocky Road to Reinventing Retail”, a luncheon and in-depth conversation with Ron Johnson, the CEO of JC Penney. The sold out event, was made possible by Fashion Group International (www.fgi.org ) and The Robin Report, and sponsored by Self Magazine, Cotton Incorporated, Chic TV, Master Card, Goldman Sachs, and Me-Ality.com.

The man of the hour, Ron Johnson, who literally started a retail revolution in his less than one year at the helm (YUP!), would have an opportunity to explain his game changing strategy to the audience, without giving EVERYTHING away of course, followed by a q & a from members of the audience spearheaded by Robin Lewis.

A lunch of cold chicken breast, salad, cheesecake, berries, iced tea, and coffee was served and it’s worth noting that it was was appealing to the eye, tasty, accessible, efficient (we were told he had 20 minutes to eat), and provided good value — much like JC Penney. Laura McEwen, VP and Publisher of Self, then took the podium and made her introduction. She reminded the audience that in our current retail climate, “tastes change at supersonic speed and consumers get bored easily and quickly”.

“Marketers are faced with the daunting challenge of keeping consumers from getting bored” she said, and went on to observe that, “the average attention span of an adult is 8 seconds, that of a gold fish is 9” (this elicited a big laugh).

“It takes a genius to re invent a product and we have a genius in the house: Ron Johnson”.

Next up was Robin Lewis who exclaimed that the “lunch was sold out” and “it was the “most people we have ever had” at this event. He said that Ron Johnson “fundamentally disrupted JC Penney” with his trans-formative vision, and he is creating a “new way to elevate value”. “He is unwavering in his conviction to achieve”.

When Ron Johnson walked on stage, it was hard not to notice how casually dressed he was, clad in a blue pinstriped shirt and navy trousers. The first thing the 53 year said was that he was “informal” (“I dressed for this event” he boasted.”I worked for 12 years at Apple” as if to explain). In true salesman form, he proudly pointed to his shirt and his pants and described them as JC Penney items, even giving their style numbers, prices, and descriptions.

Among the key points he made during the course of the afternoon, as he passionately spoke about the complete reinvention of the chain (which will end up looking like an enclosed mini mall with 100 or so branded specialty shops by the time it’s done in 2015):

“We are here to do something significant, something that matters”. “I have always wanted to things that matter.” And he spoke a little about his stints at Target and Apple. He described the 110 year old JC Penney as “one of the great American companies, which is founded on the Golden Rule. It has core values, a great history, and was the first to have chain stores”.

“You need to keep up and move, but JC Penney fell behind”. When he was offered the challenging job of transforming the chain, he immediately thought “that would be fun to do” and then quickly added “it’s been pretty fun to do so far” acknowledging however the huge responsibility he is faced with. He went on to say:

“We want to take a company that’s been behind in every area, and put it WAY up front. (He emphasized the word WAY)”

“We want to leap ahead of the industry” (he emphasized the word LEAP)

“We are looking forward and we want to grow for the next few decades”.

“We will be the FIRST specialty department store; a collection of shops with a new base for retail”. “Customers love brands they can rely on. We will be a new store that will be a collection of 100 shops”.

“You will be able to walk into JC Penney and have everything you are looking for all under one roof; it will be easy to meander in and out, and you won’t have to keep checking out”.

“The shops are like Apps on an iPhone. “Each store will be pure to its brand” (some of which are Disney, Martha Stewart, Joe Fresh, Michael Graves, Jonathan Adler, Sephora, Levi, etc.)

“What we are creating is a street where people will love to be. Instead of the aisles being 9 feet wide, they will be 15 feet wide. We will fill the street with activities so that people will want to hang around longer” (and he spoke about coffee and yogurt shops, Lego for the kids, tables, iPads, Maps, Internet Access). “We will have a seasonal space built in, a half a mile street, a square, and an entirely new technology platform.”

“We are always listening to our customer. We changed our pricing to deliver value in a fair way.”

“Our goal is to put power in the hands of the customer”. We will revolutionize the way people shop, connecting the customer with the creators and inventing a place where they can connect. And then we will disappear”.

“The price change is so important. The price ticket is the ultimate measure of value.”

“We will get there step by step, store by store.”

“A lot of people thought we were crazy because we were changing the model, but that’s what it needed to get ahead. The world needs change and it needs leaders. We will reinvent retail.”

He promised that JCP will be a ” unique collection of goods, and it will make it fun to shop”. The three most important elements for success, in his opinion: 1 – Show your vision 2 – Speak the truth 3 – Treat people fair and square.

I guess you can say that by the time it was all over, we got a glimpse into how a “Penney” really WAS saved, and everyone would agree that Johnson is literally worth every “Penney”.

-Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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