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[31 comments]

Fair and Square - Penney's Stock Plunges

May 17, 2012

It's fair to say that when J.C. Penney announced last year that it had hired former Apple and Target wunderkind Ron Johnson to replace Myron "Mike" Ullman as chief executive, the reviews were almost universally positive.

It's also equally fair to acknowledge that once details of Mr. Johnson's plan to reinvent Penney started to become public, there were many who voiced skepticism about his ability to get the job done. A case in point is Penney's "fair and square" modified every day low pricing strategy. Only 28 percent of respondents to a RetailWire poll in January, for example, thought the department store chain would become more competitive by moving away from the rampant discounting of old.

As it turns out, Penney's attempt to wean its customers cold turkey off of the crazy couponing of old has failed to generate either the number of visits (down 10 percent in Q1) or market basket rings (minus five percent) that Mr. Johnson and company have been seeking.

"I don't know that we're giving up customers. Our customer is clearly buying less with fewer visits in the short term, but we want to earn her back, earn him back," Mr. Johnson told analysts at a presentation, according to Advertising Age.

J.C. Penney shares dropped more than 20 percent yesterday on the news, the single biggest decline since the company was first listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1929.

Mr. Johnson pointed his finger at a failure of the company's advertising to communicate to customers that they are getting a better deal today with "fair and square" than they were during Penney's previous coupon days.

Roxanne McKenzie told The Wall Street Journal that she used to shop at the department store on a weekly basis for herself and her grandchildren, but has cut back since Penney changed its pricing structure.

"I shop less now because I don't have a coupon," Ms. McKenzie told the Journal.

While consumers have yet to flock to Penney, Mr. Johnson and, more importantly, the company's largest shareholder William Ackman have voiced confidence the company will get turned around. Optimists point to ongoing store remodels,  the addition of exclusive brand lines, cross-channel integration efforts and a marketing program designed to educate consumers as reasons to believe same-store numbers will begin to trend more positively in upcoming quarters.

FINANCIALS:     [NYSE:JCP] [ ]

Discussion Questions:

Discussion Questions: Are you more or less optimistic today about Ron Johnson's plan to turn J.C. Penney around than you were at the beginning of the year? Where do you see the biggest hurdle with the plan and what do you think the chain should do to overcome it?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Are you more or less optimistic today about Ron Johnson's plan to turn J.C. Penney around than you were at the beginning of the year?

Comments:

I've never been optimistic and see no reason to buy into this. Fair and Square strikes me as a great slogan for a law firm or a construction company, but not for fashion. Time for some research and a new positioning.

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Dr. Stephen Needel, Managing Partner, Advanced Simulations

Here's a condensed version of the thoughts I posted yesterday on my own blog:

1. I have been skeptical about the new strategy since it was announced in January, and many of my observations since then are based on repeated visits to JCP stores. My biggest initial impression was that JCP needs to communicate its new pricing message more forcefully in-store, not just with an endless barrage of TV spots that look (frankly) just like Target ads.

2. At the same time, I appreciate that Ron Johnson and team needed to shake things up at JCP. The status quo was not an option, and nobody should have expected stellar results three months into the new strategy. However, the results are lower than even the most reduced expectations.

3. There are clear warning signs about the viability of the strategy as it stands today. The comp sales are tougher than expected, the gross margin is disappointing, the SGA rate soared instead of dropping despite the annualized cuts in payroll, headquarters staffing and marketing. And there are warning signs on the balance sheet, such as the 10% drop in inventory in the face of a 20% sales drop. Liquidating inventory will continue to be a problem and investors will tire of "extraordinary items" given the $1/share write-off at the end of 2011. The cash reserves are not a pretty sight, either.

4. Right now, the biggest problem I see is the decision to change the pricing and the marketing before delivering on the brand promise of new content and an innovative in-store experience. Meanwhile, many of the new brand initiatives (Betsey Johnson, Tourneau) represent a pricing tier at odds with JCP's own heritage as a purveyor of well-priced and well-made basics, while flying in the face of key competitors now putting more emphasis on opening price key items.

5. Finally, a lot of the hype (and stock run-up) has been built on hope and the "halo effect" surrounding Ron Johnson. Some of his new hires reportedly received extraordinary compensation packages to sign up, while the company ended commission payments and its dividend (not likely to sit well with JCP retirees). Not good symbolism for a company going through an austerity phase at the same time that it tries to reinvent itself.

Ron Johnson's comment to an analyst's question about employee morale ("It's hard to know from where I sit") seems especially tone-deaf...and he'd better figure it out. If his own organization doesn't buy the vision, why should the rest of us?

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Dick Seesel, Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC

I don't see JCP being a force in the future. They remind me of Sears, only worse, because their clothing never impressed me. Consumers today will wait for a 50-75% off sale to buy clothes, and unless JCP everyday prices reflect something close to that, then they are going to die quickly. There are way too many stores out there, and whoever survives better be ready to drop prices to levels that will sell the goods.
Macy's and Kohl's have done the best in keeping the customers coming back, and I see JCP continuing to stub their toes with this new concept, which probably will not work..

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Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering

Ron Johnson's optimism that his plan would quickly turn JCP around implies that he believes that everything can be beautiful, including what is not.

The biggest hurdle was that JCP's customers liked the "chase" to find some possible bigger deal. Mr. Johnson squashed their ecstasy of anticipation. That seems to have been a mistake. No chain smoker or avid chain shopper likes a cold turkey change.

What next Ron? Do a little blending now that he knows the core of JCP customers wants more than a "low price promise" - they also want some mystery and excitement.

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Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

I'm less optimistic on the turnaround. The amount of runway for the turnaround is too short and the amount of change too large.

They haven't convinced customers that the current pricing is better than the sale 'du jour' method. This is the biggest hurdle and job 1.

JCP also just changed the sales force comp structure and will lose their best sales people.

Slim chance of turning the ship.

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Robert DiPietro, GVP Product Strategy & Business Development, Affinion Group

I was skeptical of an EDLP program being able to compete in the minds of the price-conscious soft goods consumer as the norm for this channel is deep discounting, coupons and event sales. Instead of going "cold turkey" I would have advocated an evolving mix of EDLP and High-Low pricing...perhaps reserving EDLP for their signature in-store brand and staying High-Low on all else.

I don't think Mr. Johnson is lacking in leadership or business acumen, but I do think he misread the consumer and is paying a price for that.

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Mark Heckman, Principal, Mark Heckman Consulting

I did not buy into "fair and square" from the start. Not that it makes me some sort of expert; simply a consumer who did not think Penney's was going down the right road when it came to consumer wants and needs. And when Mr. Johnson says he does not know how the sales force at the stores feels about it; that says an awful lot about "ivory tower management". You can't turn the ship around when you don't know where the ship is headed. This is not technology sales. This is basic consumer needs.

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Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

For many years JCP trained its customers to look for deals, so it's no surprise they are confused with the new model. This can't be changed in a just a few quarters; it will take time. JCP has to give shoppers a reason to visit other than discounts -- unique fashions, great customer service, a unique experience of some sort. So far, I don't see this second part of the equation.

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David Dorf, Sr. Director of Technology Strategy, Oracle Retail

In today's Chicago Tribune there is a Macy's flyer and one from Carson's both with discount beyond the advertised price. The Macy flyer offed 15-20% from now to May 31st off for a $3 donation to help save the rainforest. Carson's had 150 Door Busters, plus $10 off any item the cost $10 or more and a 10-20% savings pass good from May 18th to May 22nd. Nothing from Penny's -- where do you think people are going to go?

JCP's pricing may actually be a better deal today than it was before, but the hard reality is the customers don't see it that way. As we all know the customer's perception is the reality we have to deal with. JCP will have to do a far, far, better job at driving their price perception down in order to get customers back into their stores.

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Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

Lots of JCP shoppers liked their coupons, JCP didn't. Guess what happened when they eliminated them?

A change of this magnitude (most everyone agreed JCP needed a MAJOR change) takes time and lots of upset. Aside from the usual chaos related to Wall Street, a shift of this size causing double digit impacts to the business seems entirely reasonable and predictable.

Even if they have found a winning strategy, there is likely to be lots more negatives before significant positives.

Paul R. Schottmiller, Senior Vice President of Strategy, Retail and Consumer Goods, Merkle

Richard's points are spot on. As a practitioner in this space and a very loyal JCP customer to boot, the moves made were truly transforming how they do business coupled with significant internal changes. If true, dropping the strategy team as well as the CRM team because they aren't needed plus eschewing customer research are prescriptions for disaster.

Likewise, and I find it hard to even write this, shame on the executive team who had final say on the television campaign. Education is one thing. Breakthrough creative that stops you in your daily routine and should peak your interest to shop/learn more about what this fair and square approach is all about is the intent. Total failure in my estimation. Let alone using the agency that did Target spots - so separate and apart from the logo type - it's nice of JCP to do spots that if the sound was off you would think were funded by the folks in Minneapolis.

My prediction still holds - the current plan will remain steady through Back to School. Alternative plans are most certainly in the works. Direct mail will begin to show up for "Fair and Square" special customer shopping events encouraging a store or web shopping experience on days when the goods are at "blue" prices.

Finally, U.S. consumers don't want to be educated about how to shop. They want a solid price/value result. To say the new positioning was an overreaction to several years of excessive couponing is not a stretch. This combined with a new sheriff in town who to his credit is trying to steer an enterprise away from decades old practices is no easy task. Again, I give great credit for attempting the change. Good for Johnson that a major stockholder along with some members of the board are being patient enough to let this "seed" in. Let's see how long stockholders maintain their patience. I think the consumer has already voted at least for Spring and into early Summer.

David Slavick, Director, Loyalty & Retention, FTD.com

Richard's point #4 reflects my take. A simple re-ordering of the revolution could have made all of the short-term difference, with store modifications and shop-in-shops taking shape before the new pricing strategy. Physical retail is a visual experience and Penney had an opportunity to make the most of it by showcasing the new vision, including the new roster of better brands, then layering on the value pricing.

Looking at the big picture, Penney is a fascinating case-study-in-progress. As tempting as it will be to give each initiative a pass or fail grade, the larger question is, is retail, by its nature evolutionary rather than revolutionary?

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Carol Spieckerman, President, newmarketbuilders

I think most of us were not optimistic about the odds of a successful turnaround at JCP and now may be even less so.

Mr. Johnson's plan is certainly bold and depends on a whole series of very dramatic changes at JCP. Such bold plans require time and money to implement and the marketplace response often lags changes.

The question is whether JCP can withstand the short-term storm and allow the plan to work or whether the plan itself is fatally flawed.

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Raymond D. Jones, Managing Director, Dechert-Hampe & Co.

Clearly JCP did not understand its loyal consumers. Working to attract a new demographic at the expense of the current loyal consumers is always a risk. The new advertising and merchandising that works for the new consumers may not work for the loyal consumers. The new consumers are not going to JCP in large numbers. Loyal consumers are not continuing to shop at JCP. It could be that this is the awkward transition part if JCP was really planning to lose loyal consumers and attract new ones to take their place.

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Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

"We want lower prices" is what Penney's heard.

What customers were apparently saying was, "We want the illusion of lower prices."

There is much to be gained from this and the good news is it has nothing to do with the buzzwords "pricing transparency" and everything to do with PT Barnum.

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Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

What's the objective in terms of the customer base? Throw out the old, and bring in the new?

The BIGinsight Monthly Consumer Survey consistently points out that the JC Penney base customer has had strong loyalty and strong proponents of shopping in Penney stores. For example, women who buy dresses there "Most Often" have been doing it for 11.1 years, compared to other retailers' averages of 9.9 years.

The pattern continues for Linens / Bedding / Draperies with 12.5 years compared to 8.9 years for other retailers; Men's clothing 11.0 years compared to 10.1 years; Children's clothing 9.5 years vs. 8.4 years for others.

Sometimes sweeping changes are needed. If JC Penney was interested in maintaining current loyalties, they could have tested the theory more effectively.

Anybody remember "New Coke"?

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Roger Saunders, Managing Director, Prosper Business Development

Shoppers have grown to mistrust any claims made by brands and retailers without tangible evidence that meets their expectations. Mr. Johnson has spent time and money changing the message but very little has been shown to date that JCP is listening to its shoppers and employees in any way. Retailing is about the shopping experience not claims made on television advertisements. Change the shopping experience, revitalize your staff and have them energized to your vision, then communicate and show your vision and its benefits to your shopper. It seems as though Mr. Johnson has executed the 'Fire, Aim, Ready' strategy. Perhaps changing the order of the strategy execution will make a difference? Despite all the decorations, new logo, and window decorations- its still JC Penney (for now)

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Adrian Weidmann, Principal, StoreStream Metrics, LLC

I'm optimistic. There are more influences on JCP's new strategy than just advertising. For instance, an article by Frank Hayes in StorefrontBacktalk entitled "JCPenney IT 'Is A Mess,' Says COO." Here's part of it:

"Now it is IT's turn to take the blame for JCPenney's woes. On Tuesday (May 15), JCPenney COO Michael Kramer told analysts that problems during the chain's terrible first few months under its new 'Fair and Square' pricing approach (store traffic down 10 percent, sales down 20 percent) were compounded by out-of-control inventory management and legacy system maintenance that ate up 90 percent of the IT budget -- both fundamentally IT problems.

The result: It costs JCPenney at least $600 million per year more than it should to run the chain -- which explains a lot about the quarter's $55 million operating loss. 'I can think of no other thing to say about our systems and our IT infrastructure, and I have seen a lot of them: It's a mess,' Kramer said."

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M. Jericho Banks PhD, President, CEO, Forensic Marketing LLC

Mr. Johnson has stated from the beginning that this would take three years. The major changes are still to come. Retraining and re-merchandising does not happen in a few months and it will take time for consumers (and I guess many Retail Consultants) to see and experience the differences. 6 months after the first Apple stores opened the reviews (and Wall Street) were equally as negative. Patience is something that The Street and retailers have little of, but in this case if the JCP board or directors stays with the program and gives Mr. Johnson the three years he asked for, the industry will be enthralled with JCP's methods - the way it is currently and rightfully emulates the Apple Store's methods.

Michael Tesler, Founding Partner, Retail Concepts

In today's business world I think we are too quick to judge what is and isn't working and often change strategy before we really it give it a fair shake. My hope is Ron Johnson and his team stick to their guns (with a few modifications) and continue down the path they announced in January.

One quarter is no way to judge the success of a strategy that impacts a business as much as this one. Mr. Johnson needs at least through the end of this year to see if consumers will understand and accept the approach. What I do know is
1) ads on TV are better than they have ever been
2) stores are cleaner and more organized
3) Pricing is simple
4) The associates I spoke with liked the changes (this was prior to the commission change)

With the new logo and Main Street theme I only hope Mr. Johnson finds a way to carry more Made In America items. This would be a great way for JCP to differentiate themselves from competitors like Walmart and Kmart.
Time will tell. One quarter is not enough time.

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John Boccuzzi, Jr., Managing Partner, Boccuzzi, LLC

They seem to have forgotten the most important element of this equation, the customer. I myself was a frequent JCP shopper, and I am totally confused by their new pricing policy. Which Friday is the "best price" Friday? First and third or second and fourth? What if Tuesday is a more convenient day to shop? I'm also put off by the fact that the pocket tee shirt that I bought regularly for $9.99 is now $12.99! Fair and square pricing? I think not!

'TexMac'

There is no easy path to prosperity for a retailer that wins customers through price promotions and assortment in a era when customers are finding better prices and assortments online. If you're going to change from a promotions based business to some other value proposition, you are essentially firing your current customers for a new customer base you hope to be able to attract (it may be the same person, but your going to win and lose different shopping missions from that customer). The problem is that you're going to lose the old customers before you have a chance to win the new customers.

Walmart tried to move more upscale with its curated assortments in Project Impact and they had to retreat. Macy's tried to eliminate coupons and weren't able to do it. I don't know if Ron Johnson can invent a new value proposition for JCP. The interesting question is, does he have enough runway to find out before JCP gives up on the new model? I do know they couldn't keep doing business as usual and expect better results, and there aren't a lot of more successful retail leaders waiting in the wings to take over for Ron.

I'm sure it doesn't help that they have antiquated IT systems that result in the COO saying "it costs at least $600 million per year more than it should to run the chain."

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Jason Goldberg, VP Commerce Strategy, Razorfish

Reducing prices, inventory levels and store staff was step one. Followup included reducing full time staff membership and eliminating most of commissioned sales. These tactics are anything but new and creative. And judging from the results, they serve to only delay the inevitable. There is nothing here to demonstrate creativity, progress or hope, for that matter.

'gjarnoldjr'

Johnson has succeeded on one front: He's alienated JCP's core customer, the same customer that became more frugal thanks to the recession and, in doing so, learned to use more coupons.

The new "good, better, best" pricing strategy may actually save more money than using the old coupons, but as a longtime JCP customer who has received all the ads, circulars and emails the chain has put out since Johnson's arrival, I can confirm that it was very poorly explained. JCP should have realized that its core customers would be alienated when they woke up one day to find out the brand nixed all coupons and replaced those dollars-and-cents discounts with an overly simple statement -- in effect, "you're now getting the best price we offer." Really, what were we getting before? That was simply too big a hurdle to jump for today's more savvy, cost-conscious shoppers. And let's not forget that, unlike the previous coupons, the new strategy fails to drive the consumer to the store to shop, and this shopper has plenty of other chains to shop that still offer coupons, like Kohl's.

Couponing can often be a dirty word in retail, but Johnson obviously didn't learn from Macy's failed attempt to do away with coupons many years ago. Johnson's JCP revamp hasn't been totally rolled out, so this isn't the death knell for JCP. Still, it doesn't bode well for what's to come. Let's hope Johnson's future strategies are better thought out and rolled out. And let's hope that the brand rethinks its approach to coupons or, at a minimum, does a better job of explaining why fair and square isn't a raw deal.

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Tim Henderson, Editor/Writer, Independent

Johnson's hiring generated 16 comments
(http://www.retailwire.com/discussion/15319/apple-store-exec-to-lead-j-c-penney) and while no one had anything negative to say about the man himself, even then a great deal of skepticism was present.

So now what? Stay the course and hope this is the storm before the calm, or reverse direction (and return to a trek most said was a slow-but-inevitable death)?

As to the biggest hurdle, it's expressed in the first sentence (when J is referred to as a "wunderkind"): expectations are too high, and the incessant publicity is making it worse.

Only one thing is certain: the ongoing saga is cheering up the good folks in Hoffman Estates ... not that Sears is doing well, but at least someone else is in the spotlight.

'notcom'

Of course not! This is a long-term turnaround. You have to change the expectations of consumers, store presentation and visit management. Add to this the crazy state of the US economy and you have a difficult situation for any retailer, let alone a declining brand like JC Penney. Only time will tell.

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Kai Clarke, President, Kowa Optimed, Inc.

EDLP is a long hard arduous sell. It can turn into a war of attrition and who has the resources for that? Mark Schwartz and Kmart didn't.

In WWI Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig sustained 400,000 casualties in 142 days, barely surviving until rescued by the Americans, but losing the soul and spirit of the British Empire. What many have built one man can tear asunder.

While the British politicians did not relieve Haig, they refused to send him more troops. In WWII, US officers relieved of battlefield command were sent back to the states on training assignments. Where are relieved corporate officers sent?

When Johnson says about employee morale "it is hard to know from where I sit," one wonders whether it is from ignorance or a lack of empathy. In either case, the answer is not satisfying.

Most people think that that the company needed a shakeup. When you shake things up, some things get broken. If too many of those broken things are mission critical the company can be lost. There is a nursery rhyme about this subject. Sometimes new leaders should remember the advice given to doctors: Primum non nocere, first do no harm.

'DrCellmor'

As I have said before, for me it was about the pants. JCP men's Stratford Dress Slacks were of about the best quality to be found by comparison to other brands and even those sold by JoS. A. Bank.

They had a very nice wool blend slack for a regular price of $79.50. With sale prices and couponing they could be purchased for around $25. Granted, that was huge discounting from regular price.

In the transition, coupons and sale prices were eliminated and the retail was reduced to $35. I thought, okay, that's fair. I could buy them every day at a fair price. I didn't need a coupon. I didn't need to wait for a sale.

On specific Fridays they would be reduced slightly to $29. That was also good. However, I felt the price reduction overall was a fair price. It really wasn't that bad if I didn't shop on a specific Friday. I also believed that was counter to their fair and square strategy in the first place. The specific Friday reductions sent the wrong message.

Now, the wool blend pants have been discontinued. They have been replaced with a non-wool blend slack so that they could meet the price point at a higher profit. My pants are gone.

As they continue to pursue the price strategy, these changes will continue. In fact, the sales associate even told me there would be more changes in quality coming. I wondered how she knew, but evidently she was very confident of it. The replacement pants were of a level that might be found at Kmart or Walmart. They certainly were not comparable to the previous standards of the Stratford label. As a consumer, I was willing to accept fair for a fair price all the time. As a consumer, I could have purchased a poor quality pant anywhere if I had wanted that. I didn't.

For me, the strategy has failed. From my view, it's over. I fully expect to begin to watch the long slow death of JCP just as we painfully watch the continuing slow death of Sears.

I do believe that the consumer will begin to notice that they have traded fair pricing for good quality. At that point, there is no differentiation.

It was about the pants; now it's over. JCP, I'll miss my pants. It's too bad that JCP now has sent me on a search for another retailer. Other consumers apparently have also accepted the invitation by JCP to go elsewhere. They admit it. They will not earn them back by diminishing quality. We have Walmart for that already.

'Scanner'

There is no question that we have to be pessimistic about the current JCP business strategy. Consumers have become so accustomed to receiving coupons that often they are holding off on purchasing until they receive an incentive. As a result, consumers simply lack reasons to shop JCP NOW, and end up going to their competitors with coupons.

This plan is unresearched and ill-advised in a rollout scenario. Certainly test the concept in a group of stores until you perfect the product, service, merchandising and positioning and then roll it out. It may be a great strategy, but giant rollouts without rigorous testing and refinement are often doomed to failure.

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Mark Price, Managing Partner, LiftPoint Consulting, Inc.

JCP's turnaround strategy is bold and involves a great deal of risk and patience. Public companies are rarely afforded patience by investors. Great turnarounds, including Apple, take a great deal of time. It's unlikely Johnson has that. And of course, the other reality is that JCP is not Apple, nor will it ever be.

While Apple is an amazing company with great products, its culture is centered around product and brand, not customers. A company like JCP has to focus on customers too and under Johnson's leadership they are failing to do this, as evidenced by the de-emphasis on JCP Rewards and the advertising.

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Phil Rubin, CEO, rDialogue

"Customers are getting a better deal today than during the coupon days." This IS a problem -- Penney is not making as much profit if that is true and worse yet -- the customer does not SEE, or appreciate, the deal!

"I shop less now because I don't have a coupon." Like it or not -- the public, in terms of middle market department stores, has been trained over the last two decades to rely on, and respond to the feeling of, the coupon savings. This could be a deal breaker for the desire for EDLP strategy. Macy's runs an EDLP strategy (for some of its merchandise) WITH crazy coupon antics.

William Passodelis, associate, ML Co.

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