(Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images)
Corbis via Getty Images
As my fellow Forbes.com contributor Sandy Stein points out in a related post on J.C. Penney’s quarterly earnings report yesterday: “You know the bar has been set low when comparable sales…of negative 7.7% (and) twice the loss of the previous year, meets expectations and executives appear to be pleased.”
Another “bright spot” that some pointed to was the improvement in gross margin- which actually isn’t all that hard to do when you slash inventories and (presumably) most of your meager traffic comes to your stores prepared to buy. Regardless, Penney’s survival will not come from an improvement in margin rates, but an improvement in margin dollars-and that requires a big reversal of sales trends.
Penney’s turnaround will also not come from massive store closings. As I go into in detail in my forthcoming book, the vast majority of retailers that are in serious trouble (or have died in this age of digital disruption) have a customer relevancy problem, not a fundamental cost or too many stores problem. They seem to believe that a slightly better version of mediocre can be a winning long-term strategy. The harsh reality is that if Penney’s cannot very quickly demonstrate the ability to win, keep and materially grow its core customers it can never cost cut or store close its way to prosperity. Period. Full stop.
We’ve seen this movie before and we know how it ends. But enough about Sears.
Of course, executing a dramatic improvement in customer relevance won’t be easy. In making its journey from boring to remarkable, Penney’s faces (at least) four big challenges.
The middle is collapsing. The mall-based moderate department store has been in decline for more than two decades, and there is not only no sign of this abating, there is evidence that the growth of e-commerce and off-price/value retail is accelerating it. The bifurcation of retail is a real and growing phenomenon, and more and more it’s clear that it’s death in the middle.
Little customer traction. Newish CEO Jill Soltau is rightly focused on getting basic operating and merchandising disciplines right and some improvement is evident. But better is not the same as good. The amount of market share Penney’s has lost since Ron Johnson’s disastrous reboot nearly a decade ago is significant, particularly when we consider that the economy has been strong, various new strategic initiatives on the part of Johnson’s two successors were attempted and Penney’s most direct competitor closed hundreds of stores, many of which were in the same mall. And Penney’s brand image is not exactly what Millennials will easily gravitate toward.
Significant investments are needed. You don’t have to do much math to realize that for Penney’s to be sustainable over the long term they will need significant numbers of new customers and the customers they already have will have to spend materially more. When we consider that the pond they are fishing in seems to be contracting, this means they need to steal significant market share. Most of the ideas being tested in their Hurst, Texas prototype are solid-but hardly remarkable-and mostly just level the playing field. To capture dramatically more share of wallet, the ideas have to be far more radical and big dollars will need to go into their stores and their e-commerce capabilities, as well as toward delivering a more harmonized customer experience. The amount of money that will need to go into marketing to win back customers is similarly daunting.
The problem is they think they have time. Good enough no longer is. Store closings don’t improve customer relevance. The pace of disruption is accelerating. Having been in a slow motion car crash for the better part of two decades, Penney’s wall is fast approaching. (Hopefully) short-term issues like coronavirus fears and stock market gyrations will not make an already Herculean task any easier. Penney’s has guided comparable store sales to be down 3.5% to 4.5% for fiscal 2020. If that is the best they can do we know where we will be this time next year: more cost cutting, more store closings and more customers who won’t miss Penney’s when they’re gone.
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