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Ron Johnson Wasn't Wrong...

Warren Shoulberg Publisher/Editorial DirectorWarren Shoulberg Publisher/Editorial Director
BUT THAT DOESN'T mean he was right, either.
     Say whatever you want about Johnson's failed attempt to reinvent JC Penney. And it doesn't matter whether you thought he was a brilliant visionary or an empty sweater who was in way over his head, Johnson's basic premise was absolutely correct: The Penney Company was a broken, dysfunctional and declining retail business that was headed for the mall scrap yard at some point down the road unless some radical changes were made.
     And radical changes were exactly what Johnson brought to the Plano party. He tried to change virtually everything all at the same time: the merchandising, the merchandise, the merchandisers and the very culture of the company.
     In hindsight - which is, after all, the best sight - it was way too much. Johnson defended his strategy by saying it wouldn't work if it was done piecemeal, everything needed to be changed simultaneously for the overall process to be successful. You can question how much of that was intelligence and how much was sheer hubris, but an argument could be made that the basic assumption was not entirely incorrect.
     While I'm not here to bury him, I haven't come to praise Johnson, either. Because even if you agree that he needed to make big changes, you can't possibly think most of those changes weren't poorly thought out and badly executed.
The pricing tactic was a disaster. Fair and Square became value pricing, which became coupons and sales and all the usual promotional suspects.
     The advertising campaigns were all over the place. Ellen DeGeneres came and went faster than a one-day sale. The slick monthly TV and print vehicles disappeared with the turning of a few calendar pages. A series of compare-us-with-them spots didn't stick around long enough to have any impact. The Yours Truly theme made little sense and functioned neither as corporate image maker nor sales driver. Mike Francis was an early scapegoat, but the marketing bleeding didn't stop when he left.
     The products were the wrong merchandise for the wrong customer. Most Penney customers wouldn't know who Terrence Conran is if he invited them to his house for dinner. Jonathan Adler is not a mainstream Main Street brand no matter how much he tones down his look. In apparel, Levi is available at about a dozen other stores in the mall, making it an odd choice to hang your jeans business on.
     Martha was a mess. I continue to believe her brand resonates with shoppers and she would be a good fit for Penney. But the process of getting her was a debacle, and ultimately it's going to end up costing the company an enormous amount, in money, time, missed opportunities or all of the above.
     Like any good Texan - even a just-visiting transplant - Ron Johnson has ridden off into the sunset, taking his signing bonus and iPad with him.
     He wasn't wrong ... but wouldn't it have been something if he was actually right?

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