Stock Tycoons, CEOs, analysts, investors, commentators . . . it seems that the entirety of the Wall Street community and the upper echelon of the business community have been watching and speculating about the slow demise of J. C. Penny. Best hopes have failed and the store and stock are in a tailspin.
Although these groups understand the “What”, none of these groups or people seem to be able to pinpoint the “why”, let alone the “how”.
“What” has happened is that J. C. Penney has bled consumers. Kohl’s has stepped in, sweeping away the position of king of the “mid-market” retail stores. In efforts to combat the ever-dwindling market share the company has hired and fired CEOs, tried and failed at multiple rebranding and marketing campaigns. Unfortunately, nothing seems to help. The problem it seems, is nearly unsolvable.
Because the wrong people are working the problem.
J.C. Penny wasn’t created for the tycoons, analysts, investors or commentators. It was created and patronized by moms. It serves those who aren’t rich, aren’t poor and genuinely need something.: a mom who needs a suit for her 6 year old boy; a dad who needs a new pair of 501s after ripping his fixing the leak under the sink.
Penney’s has lost its way because its leaders have lost its identity. They don’t understand it because they don’t need it, they don’t use it and they don’t know what’s wrong with it.
I have never been a faithful Penney’s shopper. Then again, I probably represent the ultimate Penney’s demographic: I am middle class, far from rich, have financial ups and downs, and am incredibly busy with three kids a husband and a career. I don’t “mess around” with shopping. Unlike many women who peruse the malls on a regular basis just looking for something to catch their eye, roughly 95% of my purchases from non-food retail stores are PURPOSE DRIVEN. I need a new bathing suit for my 5 year old. I need jeans slim enough not to fall down around my skinny teen-age son’s ankles. Sure, I’ll grab the socks that are on sale in the middle of the aisle on my way out – and a buy one get one 50% off will usually double my load. I can be baited into the impulse purchases that retailers need to survive – but you have to get me into your store first. To do that, you have to serve a purpose.
I live in Plano, TX, worldwide headquarters for J.C. Penney. The stores nearby are obviously flagship – some are bigger, newer, neater than any Penney’s I have ever been in. And I have been in plenty of Penney’s. But all the flash and square footage won’t fix the problem.
Penney’s was my stand-by for years. If I couldn’t find it or didn’t know where to start and it involved clothing – go to Penney’s. Penney’s had christening gowns, young boys dress wear, shoes for all ages, accessories, the best selections on jeans, men’s business attire – anything I could need. Now . . . well . . . I’m not certain what Penney’s has. It doesn’t have what I need.
What I need is time.
What I need is understanding.
Yesterday marked the last in an ever fewer and farther between visit to Penney’s. Admittedly – it wasn’t my first choice. Dillard’s and Macy’s both had failed me. I was resorting to a never-fail old standby that had long ago lost its appeal as a front line – I went to Penney’s.
Gone are the old departmental signs that used to hang from the ceiling to guide my way.
I had to wander aimlessly and finally ask for the children’s department.
When I got there, I could not find the section I needed – girls size 2T-6. Neither could two of Penney’s associates – one of whom works in the children’s department. Seriously – and entire section of a department had gone missing.
When a parent NEEDS something (in this case, a dress for a 5 year old’s pre-school graduation) and has to drag two children under the age of 6, handholding tightly to wriggling easily distracted children they aren’t having fun. They are on a mission. There are dollars to be spent, needs to be fulfilled and efficiency is king.
Yes – there was a big flashy Disney section with a Giant Olaf that just begged my kids for their adoration. I had spotted it on the way to the kid’s department, as had my children. It was in the back of my mind as a bargaining chip, a reward – ok – a bribe. When the shopping inevitably got the best of my girls, I would promise them that we could see the big Olaf if they would just be good.
But we didn’t go there.
Instead, I was in and out in 10 wasted, exhausting, frustrating minutes that ended in me snapping at a clerk in front of my kids. The only solution for a size 5 formal that the clerk and Penney’s offered me was a jersey material stretchy tutu play dress. I was insulted. Insulted that the clerk didn’t understand that wasn’t what I wanted, what I needed.
Penney’s had failed me.
The stand-by has fallen.
Penney’s didn’t respect my time. Penney’s didn’t respect me.
Penney’s didn’t lay out the store in any logical manner. They didn’t mark departments well, then they even failed to follow the few markings that they had. They aren’t fit to run a department – let alone a store.
There is a basic order and logic to a children’s department. Infants is central since it is where every parent begins. Then there is toddler boys on one side and toddler girls on the other, each graduating to children’s sizes of the same sex on the opposite side from infants. This works because SHOPPING WITH KIDS ISN’T FUN. Parents know where things are. By putting the next section their kids will inevitably grow into right next to the one they are in, the retailer assures the parents what they want – the ability to find what they need. Quickly.
Here is the key to middle class America’s discretionary spending lockbox: have what I need, put it where I can find it, hire and trail staff to have a clue and respect my time.
If you follow these few carnal rules, you get my discretionary dollars. Fail them and you won’t.
You see, it’s shopping for the needs of my kids that drags me to the stores most often. Kids do this funny thing – they outgrow their clothes. I’m not exactly certain how or why, but every change of seasons brings with it a laundry list of new things that have to be bought for my kids. Then, there are the occasions. The never ending occasions! Christmas, Easter, graduations, weddings, first day of school, pictures, birthdays . . . all of this leads to mission shopping.
The other stuff – a new purse for me, work khakis for my husband, boxers, socks . . . these things will be bought where the primary mission is being completed
I’m there getting new dress shoes for a 3 year old. I’m there getting a bathing suit for a 2 year old. I’m there. I don’t want to come back. I don’t want to drag children to a place that they can run, hide, annoy other adults and worst of all: be lost or snatched from.
So, you better believe that I’ll get my husband’s jeans, that new pair of earrings, socks and whatever else I need while I’m there. And yes – I and my kids are completely and totally ready to buy into the gimmick and go see the giant Olaf display. While there, it’s likely I’ll justify an impulse purchase – after all, the girls love the Frozen tee-shirts and could wear them to preschool. They fit my budget. And I’m already here.
But if you can’t fulfill my mission, you better believe I am out that door. As fast as possible. Because I have to find the retailer who will- and I am only checking out once.
The “how” is to return to the oldest principle of retail: know your market so that you can serve your market.
Right now – Penney’s hasn’t got a clue.
I bought the dress at Kohl’s.