Friday, February 3, 2012

jcp: Kudos for recognizing it’s a company in flux

For weeks we’ve been listening to screaming customers who have missed out on super savings because their circular didn’t arrive on time or they forgot that this weekend their favorite retailer was offering 40% off.  Thankfully, these annoying screams have passed away into advertising purgatory:  jcp, as it’s now called, has finally embarked on its new campaign: Fair and Square Pricing.

Red is for “everyday prices—our regular prices, which are always great”; White is for
“month-long values, even better prices on the things you need now”; Blue is for “best prices, our lowest prices always happen on the 1st and 3rd Fridays of every month while they last.”
The three kinds of pricing are coupled with one “happy” return policy:  “any item, anywhere, it’s that simple.”
Well, I wish the pricing policy were as simple as the return policy.
Full disclosure:  When I was in college, I worked for J.C. Penney, first in appliances, then in notions and sewing supplies, then in domestics.  I think I worked in these departments because I understood math and could figure out installment plans and fractions.  J.C. Penney sold yardage then.  I wore a simple black dress and nylons (required), pulled my very long hair up into a bun, and proudly displayed my name tag that had the simple suggestion:  “Like it, charge it.”
Like the simple tagline, J.C. (C for Cash) Penney had pretty clear positioning then—as clear to me as a grade school kid as it was as a college kid:  good quality at an affordable price.  Plain and simple.
Nothing is as plain and simple anymore, so I applaud jcp in recognizing that retailing is in flux, as evidenced by this full-page ad run in the New York Times on Wednesday, February 1, which I quote in full:
In praise of fresh air

This year, we turn 110.
          We’re fine with growing old.
          We’re not fine with growing stale.

So, to celebrate, we’re going to throw open
the windows and let in some fresh air.

           We’re thinking and reimagining,
           And if we find that we’ve picked up
           Any bad habits over the decades,
           We’re going to leave them far behind.

We’re simply going to treat people
as we’d like to be treated ourselves.

           Fair and square.

We won’t make anyone jump
through hoops to get a good price.
We won’t fill mailboxes with junk.
We’ll have great prices every day and
spectacular prices that last a whole month.

           And it won’t stop there.

We’re dreaming up new ways
to make you love shopping again,
matching our calendar
to the rhythm of your life.

           Because we’re not interested in being
           the biggest store or the flashiest store.

We want to be your favorite store. 

Besides from the unnecessary swipe at the catalog and direct mail business—which has, incidentally, made J.C. Penney piles of money—this manifesto of change disturbs me because jcp needs to earn its right to become my “favorite store.”  And it won’t do that by making me “love shopping again.”   It will allow me to discover that shopping is simple, that the pricing is fair, and that I will choose whether or not to shop at jcp.  Somehow jcp has not yet figured out that the customer wants to be—and increasingly is—in control. 

Much of this positioning is too cutesy and too complicated when it could have been simple and great.  For example, does anyone of you really understand this pricing structure at first glance?  Why can’t we have spectacular prices every day?  I expect white sales in January; is that my rhythm or the department stores’?  And what does fresh air have to do with any of it?  Or jcp tv videos for that matter, which are simply links to ads featured on You Tube. 

Would that jcp picked up the good habits of the past and returned to quality first at a fair price.  And, if the pricing were as straightforward as the simple, somewhat nostalgic advertising pieces they’re showcasing, then maybe I might give them the chance to prove that they’re being “fair and square.” 

The jcp campaign tells us as much about retailing in general as it does about the need for this 100 year old retailer to carve out yet another new niche.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Embracing Chaos

As I was thinking about writing this first blog, I opened the latest issue of Fast Company to an article written by its editor Robert Safian, “The Secrets of Generation Flux.”  I have been poking around the issue of rapid change and our inability as retailers to embrace it for quite a few years—even going so far as to develop a conference with some friends (that never quite got off the ground) called ‘Reinventing Retail.”  An article in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review appeared with the same name. Lesson learned yet again:  “If you snooze, you lose.”
            In the Fast Company article, Safian writes:
When businesspeople search for the right forecast [to describe how business will transform]—the road map and model that will define the next era—no credible long-term picture emerges.  There is one certainty, however.  The next decade or two will be defined more by fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm; if there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern.  The most valuable insight is that we are, in a critical sense, in a time of chaos (
            As a GenFluxer myself—being a GenFluxer has more to do with a mind-set than a demographic—I long ago made friends with change.  In fact, my various careers in academia, publishing, multichannel retail, customer experience management—and a diverse consulting practice—well fits the GenFluxer definition.  I had to chuckle when one of the women interviewed—Raina Kaumra (who admits to skill hoarding) says:  “So many people tell me, ‘I don’t know what you do.’” How many times have I heard that?
            What’s this blog about:  How we as retailers are coping with rapid change, how we can keep our businesses viable when our assumptions and practices no longer seem relevant, what we might learn from other businesses about innovation and outmoded legacies, how our failure to adapt is leading us astray, and how we can regain the sense of agility our mom-and-pop forebears once knew instinctively—keep it fresh, keep it changing, and keep them coming.
            So, what are your thoughts as we face a New Year of Unknowns?