Ron Johnson’s highly publicized tenure at JC Penney has ended, and perhaps with it, the potential of JC Penney to compete for the middle class Millennial. Sure, they may regain the customers they lost by reinstating the deals-centric retailing of Myron Ullman, but the customer base that JC Penney took losses to acquire, short of their $1 billion loss in 2012, is the lost customer base of JC Penney — the middle class Millennial, from the young family segment all the way to the senior in high school.
Older Millennials will tell you they remember the uncool Target of their childhoods; the deals, the cheap quality, the ducking-out-if-you-saw-anyone-you-knew Target. The pre- (ready your best French accent) “Tar-JSHAY” Target. It was really uncool, and what’s more, it was really uncool to shop there or have anyone shop there for you. Fast-forward a decade, and the Target website is crashing in response to the millions vying for anything from their Missoni X Target collection launch. JC Penney became what Target was, and if significant directional changes are made to Johnson’s visionary long-term plan, JC Penney will stay that uncool store.
Assuming JCP does not stay the course, they will not finally secure their hard-earned, first-time customer. The return of pre-Johnson deals will drive Millennials further from the brand (“fair and square” pricing could not have a better fit for this demographic). Removal of all the brands that Johnson acquired, such as Joe Fresh, will leave Millennials without any reason to try the brand out in the first place. Taking away the innovative tech options, which we’ve come to expect, to enhance the experience won’t go over so well either.
It is impossible to say if Johnson’s plan would have ultimately worked– each quarter seemed to prove otherwise. But there was something happening in Johnson’s tenure that wasn’t yet quantifiable with ROI– the middle class Millennial was reconsidering their disgust for JCP. We were intrigued– we may have not yet visited a store, but we could see ourselves actually doing that. Joe Fresh is in JCP? Really? We might have checked that out. The necessarily slow process of attracting the Millennial consumer was just beginning, the only thing missing was the mandatory push of recommendations from friends – the viral marketing connection. Johnson’s last step, and his most crucial — from a brand standpoint and an investment standpoint — was getting that consumer inside the store, if only to replace the droves leaving the retailer after “fair and square,” which proved to be the undoing of his entire legacy. But what Mike Ullman and the rest of us should understand, is that we were standing there right outside the door, just about ready to walk in.