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  • Warren Shoulberg

The New Texas Ranger

Warren ShoulbergWarren Shoulberg
RON JOHNSON. J.C. PENNEY. Ron Johnson. J.C. Penney. Johnson. Penney. I just have to let that sink in a little bit.
     By the time you read this, the big news about Ron Johnson, the great Apple Retail Superstar, joining J.C. Penney, the not-so-great retail fading star, will be a week old. But as I write this, I just keep saying to myself: Ron Johnson. J.C. Penney.
     This may not be the most amazing and unlikely piece of executive placement in the history of retailing, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anything else even remotely comparable.
     Johnson is of course the guy who invented the concept of the Apple retail store, changing not only the very notion that computer manufacturers had no business being in the retail business, but also many of the basic tenants of retail merchandising. The sleek white merchandising presentation and display, the high-profile locations, the bold graphics, the Genius Bar, even the glass staircases: They are all Ron Johnson signatures.
     Those of you with a little longer memories will remember when Ron Johnson was at Target and helped to create their entire merchandising persona, proving that you could be cheap and chic at the same time. Johnson was particularly involved in the home side at Target back when its merchandising and product development were malls and malls ahead of anybody else in the retailing universe.
     When Johnson announced he was going to what was then a store-less Apple, I remember a few of us looked at the news and couldn't quite figure out what the plan was. Would he do packaging, advertising, trade show booths? Surely Apple wasn't going to be foolish enough to get into the retail business, right?
     A decade or so later, Johnson is going to Plano and some of us are back looking at the news again and wondering what the plan is there. Well, a few things should be said immediately.
     First, give Mike Ullman credit for knowing he had to bring in a game changer. Penney is slowly in danger of becoming irrelevant to its customer base, outpaced by a smarter, faster Kohl's and squeezed between a newly rejuvenated Macy's and an increasingly aggressive Target. Just another general merchandise retread wasn't going to cut it.
     That said, Johnson has his work cut out for him. Unlike at Apple, where he had a clean slate to start with, he has to work with 800 existing stores, many of them poorly situated and in need of serious remodeling to appeal to the target (pun intended) customer. He doesn't have sexy iPads and hot new apps to sell, just junior sportswear and rod-pocket curtains. And he's got a convoluted buying and product development apparatus that would make the Soviet- era military look efficient.
    These are all big challenges. Allen Questrom began the great culture transformation at Penney when he joined the retailer in the 1990s. More recently, that process seems to have gotten bogged down under Ullman. Now it's up to Ron Johnson to re-ignite that process.
     Can one man do it all? Remember the legend about the Texas Rangers only sending one man to help quell a riot in some small west Texas town? "There's only one riot, so we're just sending the one Ranger."
Ron Johnson. J.C. Penney. Hmmmmmm.

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