A Vision for Talkable Brand: J.C. Penney


Originally posted on The Digital Influence Mapping Project with John Bell

I am a Mac convert. As a Creative Director, I have used Macs for much of my career. But early in the Internet years, I adopted a PC to experience the Web in a much better way. I know. The Web was supposed to be platform agnostic. Not in the early and mid 90’s. Since I was designing user experiences, I needed to use a PC to see what others (most others) were experiencing.

Now I am back on a Mac full time. People who only know my PC laptop years think I have switched. I still have a PC tucked away somewhere and refuse to give it back to IT. I have a soft spot for Lenovo because of their design heritage and the absolute reliability of that platform.

The Power of the Apple Store

Like a lot of us, the Apple Store is part of what is great about Apple. Go in on a non-crowded day and it’s a decent experience. My wife relies on the Genuises who were made for her needs. She would rather go into the store than look up a solution online and save herself the trip. They changed retail.

Ron Johnson, now CEO of J.C. Penney, deserves a bunch of credit for that. He ran the Apple stores before coming to the clothing retailer. Clearly, his first few months at the historic department store have been challenged by Wall Street who only see short term revenue problems and subsequent stock dips.

Read the interview in Business Week with him. His vision for J.C. Penney is compelling and I believe could radically change what we expect from our clothing stores. And I think it’s worth waiting for, Wall Street.

Talking simply about the wide aisles in the new mock store in Dallas, he reveals,

“..ultimately it’s a really wide aisle. We can put activity in it. We can create a place where people feel they belong. Normally in a store you don’t belong. You’re there to buy stuff. When you shop today with a friend (at the new mock store) and they’re in the fitting room, you can sit down comfortably. I can check a sports score, go online.”

He makes great points about what we need from the terrestrial store experience. With so much abundance via the Internet, the store is there to inspire. He has plenty of other innovations up his sleeve from activities in-store (cooking classes?) to iPad-toting staff, to magic dressing rooms that somehow connect online with in-store.

Transform Department Stores…Please

Hallelujah. I hope his vision gets realized and it pans out in a timely fashion. It stands to make J.C. Penney and those that chase after its vision into places we talk about and, in his words, “belong.” I am not a J.C. Penney customer. I could be. But I totally relate to what he says about the retail store. I shop in the same Nordstroms all the time. While I appreciate their base level service  – something they are known for – it drives me nuts that they don’t know me from Adam. The retail experience is the same as most other stores – too much merchandise in too little space and dressing rooms that scream “hurry up and get out.”

If Ron Johnson can succeed at transforming the retail experience, he will merge the online and offline store experience and create a bond with customers that they will talk about. He will succeed at making shopping more social. When did that stop? I have retail in my blood. My stepfather owned a department store in Connecticut when I was growing up. I spent a few summers as a teenager working there. the employees knew the customers. People hung out. They had couches and chairs. I am not sure the dressing rooms were anything special but the owner walked the aisles talking it up with customers. The guy who sold you suits knew what he was talking about and would steer you away from bad choices no matter what cost to him.

Right now, it seems like Ron Johnson is bucking the perceived wisdom of filling stores chock-a-block with merchandise (been to Macy’s lately?) and relentless sales. I applaud his apparent courage. He will have to make sure the product mix and quality lives up to a certain standard (including clothing styles). He will also have to innovate their Internet services. The JCP web site doesn’t go anywhere most other ecommerce goes now. But I presume these are all works-in-progress.

If you want to drive customers to talk about you and attract other customers you could do worse than:

  • Innovating how and what you sell in remarkable ways
  • Designing the shopping experience to be ‘social’ in all of the meanings of that word and to be about them
  • Making it easy for them to share their experience with others online and offline
  • Inviting them to feel as if they belong (because you believe they do)

If J.C. Penney’s sold black jeans (of a certain type) in my size, I would be there in a minute. Read the interview.

A note about Business Week: I am a fan of the magazine. I love the scrappy photo puns which seem somewhat out of place with consistently great writing. But read this issue. The interviews with business leaders in the back half are worth it. Just the insights from the graduates of the Jack Welch era of GE is interesting by itself.