“Steve Jobs Would Have Called This Insanity.” Ron Johnson’s Transformation Of JC Penney Begins

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It looks like they're having fun, but Apple's secret rules are nothing to smile about.
It looks like they're having fun, but Apple's secret rules are nothing to smile about.

When’s the last time you went shopping at JC Penney versus the Apple Store? The venerable retailer, overshadowed by the cheap-chic of Target, is looking to reshape itself by putting the iPhone maker’s former retail chief in charge. Ron Johnson, a 10-year veteran of Apple’s retail effort, explained the retailer and Cupertino, Calif. tech giant share much in common.


Johnson, who for ten years helped build Apple’s reputation as the iconic retailer, said when the company began opening stores in 2001, Apple had three percent of the market — the same amount JC Penney has now. Indeed, when Apple first scouted locations for its stores, he would park near JC Penney’s mall stores because they always had plenty of unused parking spaces.

The new JC Penney CEO aims to get away from constantly selling price and focusing on experience. Akin to Apple’s breakout Super Bowl commercial pitting the Macintosh against a 1984-like monolithic PC, Johnson told reporters earlier this week his goal is to replicate the Apple Store experience for JC Penney shoppers. “It’s not about buying, it’s about enriching someone’s life,” he said.

Although retail is about consumers buying products, that should not be the sole reason for people coming to JC Penney, Johnson notes. He said $1 billion worth of mail promotions in 2011 resulted in just 4 store visits. Johnsons invoked the name of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs to back him up. “Steve would have called this insanity,” Johnson said. “At some point, you as a brand look desperate.”

The new retail chief also wants to bring its advertising budget in line with Apple’s. JC Penney will spend $80 million a month on advertising with 12 promotion per year. When Apple first began advertising the iPod, the company spent just $50 million every three months for the entire world.

The JC Penney retail stores will also be remade in the image of Apple Stores. Taking a page from the company’s use of two zones: one to attract customers and another for families to learn about products, JC Penney stores will begin offering a Town Square surrounded by Main Street. Like Target, which offers designer boutiques within stores, JC Penney’s “Town Square” will frequently offer unspecified products and activities. The Town Square concept will begin showing up in all JCP stores in 2013 with the makeover expected to be complete by 2015.