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Apple’s Aura To JC Penney?


Ron Johnson, the man behind Apple’s retail strategy for the past decade and a Target veteran who helped bring “cheap chic” to the giant discount chain, has a new job. As of November 1st he’ll be the new CEO of JC Penney.

Johnson came to Apple eleven years ago from Target. He is credited with Apple’s retail stores. His public philosophy on the Apple stores was to “create a place people love”, focusing on customer experience rather than traditional retailing metrics. In doing so the Apple stores did quite well in those metrics.

As CEO of Penney Johnson faces very different challenges than bringing Michael Graves designs to Target or starting with a clean slate at Apple. The retailer is a couple of years into its “Transformation Plan”, which overhauls store aesthetics, merchandise assortments and expands its successful Sephora Boutiques.

But the company recently felt the wrath of Google. In February an article in the New York Times by David Segal pointed out how Penney dominated search results in ways that Google says were unethical. The deceitful search engine practices, known as “black hat”, led to strong corrective action by Google – which essentially means Penney was demoted in search engine rankings. Penney claimed no knowledge of the practice and fired their SEO firm.

That incident is nothing compared to the monumental task of getting consumers to “find” JC Penney stores. Most are in malls where competitors like Sears are on the cusp of closing many of their stores, with customer demographics changing rapidly and  where mall owners are looking to add supermarkets, theaters and fitness centers to fill the empty big box space vacated over the past two years.

Once consumers “find” the stores its going to take more than Johnson’s “retail theater” to turn them into customers. Retail metrics will fast-track to the top Johnson’s priorities – probably as early as this week. It will be interesting to watch the next act of Johnson’s career.

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