I’ve been quoted a lot regarding J.C. Penney, beginning with Ron Johnson’s botched makeover filled with hubris a few years ago to their recent struggles to avoid bankruptcy.
On a call last week, a reporter asked me directly, “If JCP hired you right now, what would you do to right the ship?”
So knowing JCP’s CEO Jill Soltau probably won’t be calling, I thought I’d weigh in.
JCP has always been about women. They led in women’s apparel for years. They brought the casual and classic American sportswear look to millions of Americans after the war.
What’s troubling now about JC Penney is there is no apparent rudder to the ship. No bold vision. Just middling announcements: they’re going to close 3 stores; they’ve been without a permanent CFO since last fall; they hired a young guy as their “transformation leader” while their third CMO in four years departs this week. Oh yes and now they're removing former CEO Marvin R. Ellison's Hail Mary initiative of appliances.
Without a clear vision driving their strategy, the retailer is bound to die of a thousand cuts. But a bold vision can rally shoppers, associates, and investors.
Here’s my bold vision for JC Penney: Make the brand all about women.
At the risk of mansplaining to Jill Soltau, the brand needs to filter everything through the lens of a modern woman – old, young, women of color, working women, retired women, veterans – you name it.
Instead of focusing on discounts and products, JCP needs to become more than just a store – it has to become a movement of empowered women.
It needs to be a place women not only visit to buy clothes, housewares, and everything else JCP offers, but also for meetings and mentorship. They need to offer a female-led, female interest-driven experience.
They also need go outside their stores and into their local and rural communities to cultivate relationships with female designers and manufacturers – then bring their products into JCP stores.
JCP has the power to incubate smaller apparel brands because they have developed their own in-house brands for decades, and they can use that power to elevate female entrepreneurs.
They can offer regular seminars by local businesswomen and entrepreneurs in the community. But these seminars must speak to diverse types of women including farmers, caregivers, and high school and college students.
They can feature organizations that boost female entrepreneurship.
By making the JCP brand about being successful – from office professional to soccer mom, from student to grandmother— their brand will lift up women’s voices in authentic ways.
The marketing could be something like, Now it’s our turn.
Men have ran our brand long enough – starting today, we will be turning all of our attention over to women.
JCP has to gain back the trust from the customers they’ve lost and attract those Millennial women who would find this vision and theirs aligned.
And when those customers come back into the store and others come for the first time, they must be served by a group of trained associates who are up for the challenge.
To get there, it requires showing respect for every associate in every department in stores and at corporate headquarters. A demoralized crew waiting for the executioner can’t possibly do more than fear for their own jobs.
This bold focus on empowering women would attract new customers and new talent to a new and successful J.C. Penney’s.
And the ripple effect from all this empowerment can only be good for our country...and the world.
All I’ve given here is a vision, a seed of an idea. It would take a more fully developed strategy to deliver but the market is ripe for this bold vision.
There are a lot of smart ways women can support women-owned brands from Glossier to Birchbox. But here’s the thing: supporting women-run brands are often expensive for the average consumer.
That’s where the appeal of a new JC Penney store comes in.
It will be a department store that brings a broader range of products at a more affordable price than specialty boutiques. And because it has become a movement, not just a group of stores, it will be a magnet in the mall, not a ghost town.
But that takes vision, and unless the brand adopts one bold vision that inspires shoppers to see the changes, JCP will end up like Sears.
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