A six-month update on the refurbishment of US retail icon JC Penney

It’s six months since I was last in a JC Penney, or “jcp”, store in the US. When I was there last week I wanted to see if there was any discernible change at store level another six months into the calm transition that Ron Johnson, former architect of Apple’s retail store strategy, and his top team at jcp are driving.

One of the great things about flying into and out of the same city on a six or 12 monthly basis is the ability to see step change. You can tell if a city’s economy is strong by the number of cranes on the CBD skyline, new malls being built and the number of new townhouses in the inner suburbs. The same is true of retail stores.

When we shop at a store every week or month, excepting a major store refit, we see only incremental change in layout, service and offering. So, we may not notice each of the individual small improvements. When we visit a store after an extended period, we have only the memories of our last visit, so any incremental month-by-month change is very noticeable.

The change at the jcp store I visited last week was noticeable: A big bold, store within store concept at the front of mall entrance; a true store within a store, not a small concession; and large and innovative branding, in this case for Levi’s.

Now jcp, and every other mid-tier mass merchant and department store, stocks Levi’s. Stocking Levi’s isn’t a point of difference. It’s usually treated as just another line, not well merchandised and not stocked in depth. It’s almost a commodity.

So what made this Levi’s display so compelling and inviting to passing traffic?

Visually engaging and customised fixtures. Bright Levi’s signage, wooden shelving, and cut-out cast iron product descriptors for “boot” “straight” and “skinny” styles all in an oversized cast iron “cattle brand” motif.

Having caught my attention with a great display, and now more importantly than the display, the product was stocked in depth and breadth, pricing was clear and good value, and there was a dedicated Levi’s change room. Better yet, the Levi’s store within a store was supported by two retail associates who are experts in the product.

In the “retail trifecta”, jcp has come a long way in addressing the first two elements: great shopping environments and service by knowledgeable and passionate associates. It’s evident that around the rest of the store there is now also a good mix of new-hire, younger associates and longer-term, older retail associates.

The third element of the retail trifecta, investment in a new POS/BOS system, perhaps with a mobile cashless transaction facility, will see jcp move its brand and positioning a little further up the scale towards Nordstrom. Not in order to try to be an imitation of Nordstrom, but to be its own, unique and relevant shopping destination for its loyal, lapsed and new shoppers.

Lapsed and new shoppers are the key to any successful retail turnaround strategy. When a retailer undertakes this type of change, its aim is to pleasantly surprise lapsed or new shoppers who visit a newly refurbished store, but not too soon in the refurbishment cycle that the impact is lost. At its best, such a change engenders a reaction that sees new and lapsed shoppers buy something they didn’t plan to buy, and then tell their friends about it

Is it working? I was only there for a store visit, but I bought four pairs of Levi’s in 10 minutes. And I just told you.

As CROSSMARK CEO, Kevin Moore looks at the world of retailing from grocery to pharmacy, bottle shops to car dealers, corner store to department stores. In this insightful blog, Kevin covers retail news, ideas, companies and emerging opportunities in Australia and across the world. His international career in sales and marketing has seen him responsible for businesses in over 40 countries, which has earned him grey hair and a wealth of expertise in international retailers and brands.

CROSSMARK Asia Pacific is Australasia’s largest provider of retail marketing services, consulting to and servicing some of Australasia’s biggest retailers and manufacturers.

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