Apple’s Johnson Will Have Work to Do at J. C. Penney

Earlier this month, general merchant J. C. Penney announced its succession plan: Apple senior vice president-retail Ron Johnson has come on board, and will replace Myron “Mike” Ullman as CEO on Nov. 1.

Though J.C. Penney, back in 2006, was one of the first merchants to embrace the Internet as an in-store customer service tool, it’s fallen behind in a new age where customers are starting to shop stores with smartphones and tablet computers in their hands.

And last year, J.C. Penney announced a five-year growth initiative, which included the targeting of a younger shopper demographic. Late last year, the merchant embraced Facebook as a selling channel, and in January, announced it would close its outlet stores and officially put an end to its catalog channel.

Since Johnson has been in charge for the trendy, fast-growing Apple Store chain, articles like this one from The Associated Press have speculated that J.C. Penney will go from square to hip. But even with J.C. Penney making moves to modify its image, can Johnson make the merchant’s customer experience more like Apple Store’s?

Robert Passikoff, president of loyalty marketing firm Brand Keys, says Johnson had two things going for him with Apple Stores: The Apple brand itself, and the fact he was starting from scratch.

“J.C. Penney is basically a category placeholder and not a brand (like Apple),” Passikoff says. “People know them, but don’t know them for anything in particular, which is a real problem in a retail sector where the brand can be a surrogate for differentiation and added-value.”

Drew Neisser, CEO of social media marketing consultancy Renegade, agrees that Johnson had a big advantage by starting the Apple Stores from the ground up.

“Unless Johnson is prepared to burn the place down and start again, his main option will be the color of the lipstick to put on his pig,” Neisser says. “Unless Johnson is prepared to fire every J.C. Penney employee, there is simply no hope of creating the customer-centric mentality that pervades the Apple stores.”

Neisser says he’s not sure if the J.C. Penney customer is an Apple Store shopper, so there’s a chance transforming J.C. Penney could alienate its existing customer base.

According to Brand Keys’ Customer Loyalty Engagement Index for 2011, J.C. Penney ranks fourth behind Kohl’s/Dillard’s, Macy’s and off-price discounter T.J. Maxx in the department store category.

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