The reinvention of JC Penney

I have to say, I like department stores. I always have.

As a kid living in Singapore I remember walking through the imposing entrance to CK Tangs and wandering around the aisles looking at “stuff” (which often resulted in getting lost and stressing my mother).

There was just so much to see: the huge amount of space, vivid displays, different smells, bright lights, staircases, and even the staff uniforms. It all made for an almost theatrical shopping experience.

In my teens I would meet friends at the entrance to one of the city’s most luxurious department stores, Lewis’s under the amazing statue Liverpool Resurgent (more popularly known as Dickie Lewis, as it is a 20 foot high sculpture of a naked man on the bow of a ship).

In my early working life I worked in the fine china and giftware department at Selfridges in London. I’ve also had the good fortune of working in, shopping in and doing business with department stores in France, Spain, Germany, Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand. And all of them – from the most imposing food halls of Harrods in London, the atria of Myer in Melbourne, to the homeliness of Farmers in Auckland – create a theatrical feel in-store.

Theatre is a theme that has always been at the heart of good department store retailing, and important to the families that founded them. I once met John Craig Eaton, third generation retailer at Eaton’s department store in Toronto, who told me the only real difference of retailing in department stores: “Great brands and great theatre.”

In the first part of this century, arguably one of the best brands came alive with incredible retail theatre. And it wasn’t in department stores, but in smaller footprint technology and communication stores. This brand was Apple.

The man who created Apple’s retail arm from nothing in 2000 to the highest turnover per square foot retailer in the world today is Ron Johnson. He is now beginning the process of transforming US department store chain JC Penney. One of the key things Johnson brought to Apple retailing was an incredible attention to detail: Planograms and layouts were replicated around the world to within two millimetres (that’s not an exaggeration).

One of Johnson’s first observations was to recall his own youthful memories of department stores. Looking back on the golden age of America’s department stores, he observed that families came into the stores to do more than just shop. He recognised that they wanted to be entertained while being offered a range of useful services.

Today Johnson is working with JC Penney to revive the excitement and convenience of shopping in store.

I shop at JC Penney every time I visit the US because they stock a couple of brands I like, I know the pricing is acceptable and it is genuinely convenient to shop a wide range of my favourite brands in one pleasant store environment.

However, I have yet to experience excitement in a JC Penney store. Good service certainly, but not excitement.

As I write this I am sitting in Plano, Texas, the home of JC Penney and my own company CROSSMARK. In one of the local malls there is a JC Penney and an Apple store. Walking between the two allows you to see how challenging it is to translate the excitement from a small footprint, busy Apple store into a large footprint, quiet JC Penney department store.

To assist in the process of translating this excitement from Apple to JC Penney, Johnson has hired several Apple employees. His latest recruit is Laurie Beja Miller who worked on special retail projects at Apple and has worked at Nike retail.

To create retail excitement, Miller talks about the store being orientated around ‘The Square’. While no one knows exactly what this looks like yet, in my humble opinion we can expect to see a new JC Penney store format that includes mobile checkout services, use of targeted checkout vouchers and a rejuvenated brand and store feel. These elements combined will attract new shoppers, as well as younger employees that are eager to begin a retail career with JC Penney.

Ultimately, I think we will see major brands working side-by-side with JC Penney to create compelling and entertaining events in amazing, inviting stores. That will be exciting.


In his role as CEO of CROSSMARK, 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, NZ, the US and Europe. His international career in sales and marketing has seen him responsible for business 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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