It’s been 15 months since Ron Johnson left Apple to become CEO at jcpenney.
If you go by the numbers, things aren’t going all that well. If you go by the vision, it’s a different story entirely.
During the Oscars, jcpenney ran six commercials that lay the framework for the transformation in progress.
(At this point, I must bare all and confess that I was part of the creative team for this work. But don’t let that stop you from blasting away at me if you disagree.)
The “Anthem” commercial above is a 90-second letter to America. Basically, it says that jcpenney knows who you are and what makes you tick, and is devoted to helping make your life a bit better — as it has been for over a hundred years.
This is jcp’s “stake in the ground,” much as Think different was Apple’s stake in the ground when it began its transformation.
The ads that followed put some flesh on the bones, showing how jcp is bringing some cool and unexpected brands into the store.
I’ve been dutifully reading the many expert opinions on Ron’s efforts for the past year, and I understand the pessimism. It’s not easy to revitalize a brand, especially when shopping habits have changed so drastically in recent decades.
But this is exactly Ron’s point. Shopping habits have changed in a big way, and the department store is an old idea. If the concept is to survive, it’s going to have to change — drastically.
The fact is, everything for sale in the Apple Store is available online. So why are Apple Stores mobbed all the time? It’s because those stores offer something that can’t be found online: a place to try things out, people who really know the products, and face-to-face help when you need it. Apple Stores offer an experience.
In the broadest strokes, that’s Ron’s approach to jcp. He gets that you can buy the same goods online (at jcp or elsewhere) without leaving the comfort of your home. So what will it take to get people into the stores? A unique, fun shopping experience.
Ron’s plan is to bring in high-quality brands and set up each one in a “store within a store.” Each store will be staffed by specialists who truly know what they sell. The junky stuff is gone. There will be wide aisles, places for people to relax and connect to the internet, and — you guessed it — “genius bar”-types of counters where you can get help with merchandise, design, food preparation, etc.
Here’s the problem. Every Apple Store ever built has looked fantastic from day one. With jcp, Ron has to revitalize 1,100 existing stores — most of them being far bigger than the biggest Apple Store.
Transforming jcp is an ongoing process that will take another 2-3 years. The changes are going on now, shop by shop, across all jcp stores. But it’ll be a while before you can walk into a jcp store and say “holy cow, this is amazing.”
This brings me to my most important point.
Visionaries are a special breed. They’re the ones who bring true change to this world. Despite that, people don’t just line up to follow their vision. In fact, visionaries are often met with scorn — because what they envision is so unlike the reality of today.
Steve Jobs experienced this when he returned to Apple in 1997. Wasn’t he the guy who got booted from the company in ’85 for running the company into the ground? He was met with even more doubt when he decided to open a chain of retail stores. Retail experts looked at the idea with disdain — yet the Apple Stores went on to make retail history.
To turn a vision into visible change, you must be immune to the criticism. You must do what you believe in your heart to be the right thing. Only when the vision is complete and has proven itself to be a success, do the naysayers quietly go away.
Is Ron Johnson a visionary? He’s proven that with a truly imaginative plan for reinventing jcp. Is his vision one that America will respond to? Well, that’s the big question. And it’s a question that can’t be answered until jcp’s makeover is complete.
So sit tight and enjoy the show. It’s easy to have an opinion, but you might first compare your own experience to Ron’s. He turned Target into what it is today, then conceived and built the chain of Apple Stores. He has a passion for retailing that is equal to Steve Jobs’ love of technology — and a deep understanding of why and how people shop.
Turning around a chain of 1,100 department stores is a task that is almost beyond comprehension. But I’d think long and hard before I bet against Ron Johnson.