Frequent markdowns can eat into a retailer's margins quite substantially. No wonder, then, that Ron Johnson - the CEO of JC Penney has tried to wean the department store off of its reliance on discounts and sales. We all know, however, that he has had limited success to date. In fact, sales have plummeted as customers have revolted at the dramatic reduction in sales and markdowns.
Let's compare JC Penney to Zara for a moment. Zara is a Spanish apparel retailer that has done remarkably well over the past decade or so. Zara manages to offer fewer markdowns than many rivals, and when it does discount its clothing, they price reductions are smaller than those offered by competitors. How does Zara do it? They pursue a "fast fashion" strategy, whereby they make smaller batches of fashion items - a substantial percentage of which they make in their own factories. They change their product mix often, and they react quickly to changing trends and consumer tastes. Customers know that many lines of clothing will have limited numbers of items, and that those items may not be on the shelf one month later. As a result of this nimble strategy, Zara minimizes the downside of "fashion misses" in their product line. Because they don't produce huge runs of some of these items, they have much less inventory left over if a new product is not a hit with consumers. Therefore, they have less of a need to mark down those clothes.
In short, Zara has reduced its dependency on markdowns, but they have not done it simply by declaring that there will be less discounts. They have built an entire strategy that makes it much less likely that they will need to discount items. JC Penney hasn't yet built that comprehensive strategy to support its new pricing policy. As a result, JC Penney has struggled.