Catalog Critique: A Look at the February 2012 J.C. Penney Look Book

Bold and courageous, and most likely a game-changer

By Lois Brayfield
J.C. Penney is joining the ranks of legacy brands that have gone stale but willing to change the rules rather than follow the pack. Like a gecko changing the way people think about insurance or Apple changing the way we think about music, J.C. Penney is changing the way customers think about pricing.

Keeping it simple, their “Fair and Square” pricing scheme is well executed across channels, including their newly launched look book. To complement the square theme, they’ve introduced a square logo, a square book and have utilized square graphics throughout. In the opening spread they admit to their 110 year age but boldly state they are going to be “rethinking and reimagining” so that customers “will love shopping again.”

The look book delivers exactly as promised and while many of the traditional catalog design rules are broken, energy and excitement are delivered with bold colors and emotionally-charged photography. With their promise to “reimagine” the catalog reaches out with relevant themes including the Academy Awards, the Super Bowl and other pop culture and social media themes, some having nothing to do about shopping (i.e. “Where in the World is Roger?”) Overall the design and copy are fun and simple … just like their pricing promise.

With this new look, J.C. Penney will most likely attract a much broader audience but in order to sustain this new attention they still must offer merchandise that resonates. The apparel throughout the book seems to be a bit more hip than their usual assortment (or is it just the new way they are packaging it?) but they are still offering the basics at a value. While it’s never safe to compete on price alone, this new strategy is also offering simplicity and fun.

But in their boldness they may have forgotten how to create a seamless shopping experience across all channels. The good news is the catalog mirrors the online experience in which the book and pricing theme are immediately served up. In fact, one is able to click on any item on any page and place it into the shopping cart.

Sadly, the print version neglects to create a strong call to action in which the consumer is told how to shop the catalog online. There are slight nods to the URL but the overall take-away is this is a retail traffic driver without any item numbers or reference to the online ability to shop the same book. And in their new thinking they may have neglected their most powerful pages, those being the front and back covers.

Customers may never get to the inside of the catalog and may miss the entire point without any nod to their new pricing theme or reenergized brand. In fact, if one were to see the back cover only with only their new logo (that customers might now recognize) and a cat, one might think they received something from a pet catalog. Truly a missed opportunity!

In this new economy, it’s not enough to alter the course, sometimes you must turn the ship around. Clearly, J.C. Penney is breaking with tradition and starting over in a bold new way but with a purpose. Big kudos.

Lois Brayfield is president of J. Schmid & Associates.


It’s High Impact, but ultimately fails

By Chris Carrington
It will be absolutely fascinating to follow the outcome of J.C. Penney’s dramatic and bold “reinvention” currently underway – including its new monthly “look books,” which have just debuted with a 96-page February 2012 edition.

I spent quite a bit of time attempting to sort out this book, trying to determine its objectives. I have come to the conclusion that the book absolutely succeeds if its objective is to communicate a very different brand, change customer perception and drive store visits and sales.

It is clearly a high impact, clean, colorful, hip, young, humorous, well-designed lifestyle publication with beautiful photography and production values that quite effectively communicates a new brand personality, merchandise mix and approach to pricing.

If, however, the objective of the book is also to sell products, drive web traffic and make it easy for the customer to shop with J.C. Penney (in-store, on the web or via the book), I would say that it ultimately fails. The question that I would love to ask J.C. Penney is why didn’t it maximize the effectiveness of such an expensive marketing vehicle by using it to meet all of these objectives? This easily could have been achieved by marrying the magic of a “look book” with basic, direct marketing best practices.

Obvious misses are as follows:

Brand messaging – totally MIA
It would seem that given all the exciting reinvention initiatives underway at J.C. Penney, it would have taken this opportunity to talk about it in a very big wayin this book. Instead, the brand is renamed via a new logo on the cover and the only real brand messaging talks about the new approach to pricing and a statement at the bottomof page 3: “We want to be your favorite store.”

Confusing, not compelling, pricing
The new “fair and square” pricing is confusing since the customer’s first impulse is to compare the “everyday” price with the “February” price. However, these prices are for different products altogether.

The monthly “best price” doesn’t call out how much the customer can save which doesn’t encourage sales.

Product and shopping information is severely lacking

  • Minimal product information, and/or in many cases, such as the “fine jewelry heart pendants” on page 47, no accompanying product information.
  • No SKUs, so no easy way to go to the website to order.
  • No link to where any of the products can be found on the website.
  • Buried brand information in a very small point size.
  • Missing information in many cases, such as on page 11, where it does not provide any information about the trendy shoes with any of the featured outfits.
  • No indication of where the customer might find these products in the store, so that even as a store driver the book is not helpful for shopping ease.
  • Confusing product information such as the spread starting on page 70 where product is not keyed making it difficult to figure out what the copy on page 70 refers to on page 71.
  • Related shopping videos with compelling content is promoted on Facebook, but never mentioned in the print or digital catalog.
  • Designer and brand names are not promoted. This seems particularly surprising given the fact that J.C. Penney is obviously investing in new brands and designers.

Difficult to navigate and read
Typography is small, not always tied to the products and often very difficult to read (see page 28).

A book of this size, 96 pages, could use some navigational assistance, or a table of contents.

Customer service is non-existent
No phone number and no shopping aids (such as links, SKU’s, departments etc.) in the entire catalog.

Bottom line, my recommendation to J.C. Penney would be to integrate catalog best practices into these “look books” to make the books work much harder and more cost-effectively.

Chris Carrington is executive vice president at Lorel Marketing Group.


An Expensive store driver, or a poor-performing catalogs

By Sarah Fletcher
J.C. Penney was not exactly using best practices when it decided to pull the plug on their twice yearly catalogs. Well, the new J.C. Penney look books are in customer’s mail boxes and they are gorgeous eye candy.

I would bet that the new advertising team told JCP that their catalogs were old fashioned and the new team was going to create a whole new customer experience, one never seen before that would catapult JCP past all of its competitors. This meeting probably included the phrases: “Catalogs are dead”, “No one reads copy” and “Like Neiman Marcus does with their look book”. (Note that I am smiling, because as a veteran cataloger I see this pretty regularly.)

Reality check: the twice yearly encyclopedia of JCP products was destined to fail. This was a mailing strategy made famous by Sears and Roebuck when Americans were moving west to find gold in California. Limiting circulation to one or two big mailings creates peaks and valleys that make operations inefficient and customer service a nightmare.

Big catalogs are not always a fun shopping experience and lastly customers are already trained that catalogs are not precious and should be thrown away once they are a couple of weeks old. The old way was a bad plan, the question is, will the new way work?

The new look books are what advertising creative teams think catalogs should be. The mythical magalog, an exotic creature, so beautiful to behold that customers will not even need to know how to order before the cash register starts ringing. Depending on how JCP looks at the results, the new look books will turn out to be either unbelievably expensive store drivers or just really poor performing catalogs. They will also probably win some advertising awards because advertisers have no idea how direct mail works.

Here is the most likely ending to the story. The first look book will be deemed a success because it is gorgeous and gets lots of press. It is also backed up by a major brand relaunch advertising spend and without tracking, who’s to say

it isn’t creating great response. The second one will be nice but over time the advertising A team will move on to other projects, the B team won’t have the budget or the energy and the costs will get questioned. Because there is no tracking I can see, even the sales it does generate won’t get attributed to the look book. Circulars will start to look really attractive again (even without a few beers).

Someone, probably a stick in the mud like me, will point out that without the margin that Neiman Marcus gets, having beautiful catalogs that don’t really sell anything but brand are money pits. (also note that Neiman Marcus look books only go to their very top customers and are partially funded by paid placement.)

Here’s an alternate happy ending. J.C. Penney wakes up from the embrace of the mythical magalog a little lighter in the wallet but not soured on catalogs as a whole. They take what is great about the new look books, the energy, the personality, the bold colors, great photography and imaginative styling and add in some catalog best practices.

Sarah Fletcher is president and creative director of Catalog Design Studios.


Nice Design, but Nothing Personal

By Ken Lane
The J.C. Penney shift in strategy is seemingly well-thought out on many fronts and but short-sighted on others. I found myself enacting my own “Point: Counterpoint.” So I decided to put it in writing.

Point: When asked to critique a catalog, the tendency is to jump right in and point out ways to improve it. But I’d like to begin by pointing out what’s already really good about the J.C. Penney catalog: the copy.

Okay, so if you’ve seen this book, you are tempted to add the words “or the lack thereof” to this. Truth be told, this marketing tool is a laser-focused, keep-it-simple, messaging vehicle. The inside front cover and ensuing spread gets right to the point of what they take-away is. It’s our birthday and we’re not too old to change things up a bit.

After that, this catalog is well-designed, well-paced and a primer on the use of color and white space to have the reader to exactly what you want them to. Spread after spread uses their new “square” icon and crisp photos in a way that has your turning pages like a Dan Brown novel. The spreads almost appeal to the senses, using color, scale, images and people to emote with the reader. The result is a catalog that design-wise is pretty involving and, perfect-bound, likely to stay around a while.

Messages. By the time you’ve finished your first flip through, JCP has done a great job delivering messages of convenience and how you can use technology to stay involved. “your schedule is our schedule” is just one of 17 (yes, I counted them) unique web drivers, all unique ways to get across the simple message that so many mailers do with their catalogues, their site features and support of the convenience statement. If the goal of the catalogue is to do more than drive people to one of the stores or website, J.C. Penney needs to include more information and more-specific directive messaging.

Counterpoint: To paraphrase former New Orelans Saints coach Jim Mora, – “Catalog? Catalog? You call this a catalog?” The Lane household is a frequent enough shopper and a credit card holder (since our first child was born). Where is the personalization? Where is my closest store? Where is my Customer ID number?

What? You’re mailing 14 million of these monthly. Isn’t there any seasonality in your business? Aren’t you doing any Segmentation on your file? I’m sure will be happening behind the scenes. (But if not, do not hesitate to call me…)

Really? Fair and square prices? No one has truly succeeded with an everyday low price strategy.
Truth be told, this was my initial reaction when I saw the brilliantly executed television teaser ads. But in J.C. Penney’s defense, when I received its February catalog, I started to see their plans in a different light.

There are three different pricing tiers, allowing them flexibility where others have failed. In reviewing the pricing and assortments, it was clear that Kohl’s has been a stronger competitor than one would have thought. And, yes, the website ‘tag lines’ are informational, fun and catchy. And using text/mobile call-outs is clear and not indicative of your 110 years.

And, the use of QR codes is good; they can do a lot more. (In fact, using their “Fair & Square” tagline, they can easily embed QR codes more frequently throughout.)

I also feel that, given all the money JCP is spending to get this message out, that they missed the opportunity to tell a billion people their story in the clever whimsical way that they have done since launch.

Ken Lane is principal of marketing consultancy Hathaway & Lane Direct.


J.C. Penney Look Book: No App For That

By Tim Parry
We know tablet commerce had a huge impact on mobile commerce sales this holiday season. We know iPad users are more-engaged than traditional ecommerce customers, and as a result spend money. And we know that merchants who may have missed the boat are playing catch-up.

So I am surprised that, as of sunrise on Feb. 9, 2012, J.C. Penney does not have its recently-released February look book optimized for the iPad. And I’m even more surprised there’s no app for the J.C. Penney look book (and that the old J.C. Penney app is not functional) because its new CEO, Ron Johnson, is an 11 year veteran of Apple.

Just to find the look book at is a chore. This past weekend, there was an icon for the look book. It’s now gone, replaced with the text “february books” at the top of the header. It’s confusing, at best.

Now, on a traditional desktop or laptop computer, the digital look book functions well. You can zoom in on pages, you click on an item and are redirected to an item page, etc. And J.C. Penney shows it can be hip: There are social sharing buttons incorporated (if you can find the social sharing buttons), including a button for the next-big-thing in social, Pinterest.

But one of the main usability elements of the J.C. Penney digital catalog does not translate to the iPad. If you are browsing the catalog via Safari on an iPad, you cannot zoom in. The magnifying glass that appears on the desktop version does not appear in the iPad version. And sadly, you cannot stretch the page to compensate for the loss of the magnifying glass.

Now, if you turn your iPad vertical, you will get one page, enlarged, and you can make out the type (see page 10). But most of the February look book is designed as full spreads, so you miss some of the artistic elements (see page 10-11). The look book was designed to be read horizontal.

Even if you get past the enlargement issues, the white text on light backgrounds that seems to pop out in the print edition is not legible online. As you can see on pages 24 and 25, the light (and non-bold) text is not very legible.

I don’t know, maybe J.C. Penney felt that even if the user cannot read, he is going to see a man in khakis, a casual sport shirt and a sport coat and want to click to catch the style.

Now here’s one thing that does work for the look book. If the user taps an item, a white box pops up with the item name and price. Tap it again and you’re redirected to the product page.

J.C. Penney needs to do two things. First, it needs to develop an iPad app. If its goal is to attract the Apple-like crowd, it needs to let those consumers shop the way they want to shop. That’s pretty much a no-brainer.

Second, it needs to leverage its digital catalog for iPad users. In this day and age, with Google Catalog, Catalogue by The Find, Coffee Table, Catalog Spree and other apps available to deliver digital content to the masses, there’s no excuse for not being visible.

Tim Parry is the senior content manager for Multichannel Merchant.


Look Book Won’t Leave a Lasting Impression

By Jim Tierney
J.C. Penney offered up its first monthly 96-page look book in February, as part of its brand transformation unveiled last month. At first glance, this perfect-bound square (roughly 9” X 9”) look book printed on premium quality paper (a company spokesperson wouldn’t reveal what kind of paper for competitive reasons) is an attractive, enticing marketing tool.

At second glance, it appears to me that J.C. Penney could’ve made a more brazen attempt at spreading its new message of brand transformation – complete with its three-tiered pricing strategy – starting with the cover. I won’t pretend to know what the exact marketing ramifications of a new logo, a cat, and a young girl in high heels holding a valentine might be. But, I think J.C. Penney should’ve taken some of its dramatic narrative on page 3 and used it on the cover along with some sort of message like: “Fair and square. That’s what you’ll always get from J.C. Penney.”

And since J.C. Penney now has Ellen DeGeneres as its national spokesperson, why not have a picture of her somewhere on the cover so the brand can take advantage of her celebrity appeal?

While this look book includes superb photography and a nice merchandise mix packaged in an eye-grabbing way, I think look books are a risk because there isn’t immediate order information or order forms. The messages near the page numbers are light and fun, but very hard to read. This look book does a nice job in appealing to a broader audience, and may do well in the short term because it’s a new, energized theme that has generated some buzz.

J.C. Penney did some look books (for men, women, and children) in the past, but they weren’t mailed on a regular basis and page length varied. This 96-page monthly book mailed to 14 million housefile customers will become a brand staple and web driver, but to what degree?

J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson said the company will spend $80 million per month on promotions, adding “no one in retail has ever owned a month.”

For J.C. Penney, it will have to start owning years and I don’t think the look book will create a lasting impression on customers.

Jim Tierney is a senior writer for Multichannel Merchant.


Intriguing store-driver, but dysfunctional deal-maker

By Gina Valentino
The J.C. Penney February look book turned my head, and I kept turning the pages. Vibrant colors, visually interesting layouts, and a variety of merchandise categories. I felt like I was in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art…I was fascinated, interested, and for period of time I was part of the in-crowd. But ultimately I left without buying anything.

The look book is retail-store driver, and they’re also introducing the reader to their new pricing strategy. Their copy states it clearly on pages 2-3 (in a very difficult to read reverse out copy with long line lengths) and the pricing strategy on pages 4-5. I found their intent purposeful, and they’ve set expectations (just not sure how much I’m going to remember about the color-coded pricing strategy).

JCP sets the bar high for intrigue, but the functionality of making a purchase is the biggest hurdle. I wanted those platform shoes on the front cover…it would have been helpful to have a page reference or even the name of the shoe. On page 9, I did find the model wearing those shoes. And to look at me, you would have thought I was playing charades as I appeared to imitate finding directions using a fold-out map.

I did locate the name of the shoe and the retail price vertically presented along the edge of the right-hand page. Now that I knew where to find it, I went to the online look book and tried to click on the vertical information but no luck. Then I moved the mouse over the image. A pop-up box revealed the three items the model was wearing. Without any visual cues, I inherently clicked on the wording for the shoe and shazam! right to the order page. Finally!

Throughout the pages of the look book, JCP provided options to buy via text and I thought I’d try purchasing a watch found on page 17. Within seven seconds of sending my text, JCP replied with a link to the watches. Pretty cool, I thought. Then I concluded otherwise.

Navigation on a phone screen is difficult at best. After much clicking and scrolling, I eventually found a watch that was shown on the page and Express Checkout still means registering and jumping through technical hoops. Perhaps if I were already registered online with JCP, I may have experienced an easier process on my Blackberry. You can guess by now that I quit.

As I flipped through the final pages of the look book I concluded…JCP really wants me to go to their store. The barometer for success will be tallied at the cash register and will be highly dependent upon how painstakingly curious of a shopper the consumer becomes.

Gina Valentino is president of consultancy Hemisphere Marketing.


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