Laura Heller has written an article about the transformation taking place at J.C. Penney. Heller's article, which can be found at Forbes.com, describes the firm as "the most interesting retailer of 2012." As you probably know, the company recently hired Ron Johnson, the former leader of Apple's retail stores. As CEO, Johnson has set out to remake J.C. Penney, and he's hired some talented folks to help him (including a senior executive from Target, where Johnson worked prior to Apple).
So far, Johnson's team has redesigned the logo, hired a new spokesperson, invested in Martha Stewart's company and launched a design partnership with Nanette Lepore. Perhaps most significantly, the company is overhauling its pricing strategy in a dramatic way, and it's redesigning the in-store experience. The company will be reducing prices significantly on many basics, relying less on weekly sales, and keeping prices at the same level for a month at a time on many items. It's not quite everyday low pricing (EDLP), but it's a shift away from the usual high-low pricing strategy that many retailers employ. In terms of the in-store experience, the firm will be introducing many "stores within a store" - with each mini-store associated with a key brand. Heller rightfully points out that it will be fun to watch these changes unfold, and to see if they succeed.
What's clear to me is that the department store format is crying out for re-invention. Whether or not these changes all succeed, Johnson is right to try rethinking the department store concept. In a world of massive discounting, outlet store malls in every state, and rapid e-commerce growth, department stores have to change their approach. It will take more than a new store experience though. The firm will have to offer exclusive products as well, so as to avoid pure head-to-head competition with rivals. Moreover, it will have to define itself clearly vis a vis its rivals. For years, the company's positioning and target market has been a bit murky. That will have to change too.