By Jennifer Reingold
FORTUNE -- Retailer in trouble? There is often a silver lining -- if you¹re a shopper, that is. And so it has been at J.C. Penney (JCP), the $13 billion company that first gave up on sales and then returned to them -- in force -- as a way to win back the $4 billion in revenues it lost in one calendar year.
Having covered the company for the past few years, I was ready for this. As a journalist, yes, but also as a new homeowner who had not shopped at Penney's since my parents took me to get my portrait shot on a shag rug with a sky blue background. I knew that former CEO Ron Johnson had spent heavily on "design-ifying" the product by bringing in well-known mid-to-upper tier brands such as Conran, Jonathan Adler, and Michael Graves, much as he'd done in the 1990s as a Target (TGT) executive. I also knew they weren't selling, because the goods were arriving just as the company made a complete U-turn, brought back former CEO Mike Ullman, and basically pretended the Martha Stewart decorations and funky mid-century style furniture didn't exist.
But exist they do -- now, at up to 70% or 80% off. And so it was time to take advantage of Johnson¹s design sense, if not his opposition to sales. Jonathan Adler red lacquer coffee tables? Check. Blue and purple Pantone sheets at half off? Check. Michael Graves' storage solutions? Luggage? Yes, please. I cleaned up (And, yes, I felt good, no, GREAT, about the sale prices, even though the rational part of my brain was well aware that they¹d been marked up before they were marked down). If J.C. Penney's results do, in fact, improve this quarter, I personally may deserve a bonus.
Which gets me to a couple of broader points about J.C. Penney's current strategy. One, if you liked sales before, you¹ll like them now. Virtually everything is being discounted, sometimes more than once. The clutter and confusion that Johnson said shoppers hated is now more prevalent than ever, be it online or in the store. To wit: I get an email each and every day, sometimes more than once, from JCP trumpeting the latest discounts and sales. Yet it is quite difficult to use them in practice, as they give you multiple codes but only allow you to use one discount (say, 40% off furniture and mattresses, but also 20-50% off various home items) at a time. Does J.C. Penney want to get rid of its inventory so badly that it would like to process three separate orders from me so that I can take advantage of the discounts they are promising? It appears so.
Two: What is the company¹s real long-term strategy? I see no evidence of anything but a desire to purge the old one. Johnson at least had a vision for the company, flawed as it may have been. What is this new/old company going to do besides put merchandise on sale and open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day?
It's not clear to me, at least. But my wallet is enjoying the confusion.
Thanks to a motley cast of characters, the department store has somehow become a real-time tableau for virtually everything that's wrong with American business.Aug 19, 2013 9:05 PM ET
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