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JC Penney's 180 Is Complete: 'Sales' Re-Enters Its Vocabulary

Stacey Widlitz, Retail Consultant and Independent Analyst
Thursday, 28 Feb 2013 | 6:51 AM ET

We have officially passed the one year mark since the transformation to America's favorite store kicked off and J.C. Penney is worse off than when the company put Ron Johnson at the helm.

After more than one year of being told to "be patient" and that "transformations take time," investors did not get the anniversary present they expected, and J.C. Penney shares are trading down more than 15 percent before the market's open.

On the contrary, same-stores sales disappointed for the fourth consecutive quarter — and don't forget, we are talking some really low bars. Same-store sales for the fourth quarter plunged 31.7 percent, a new low for the year. Just when you thought expectations were low enough? Once again, not even close.

(Read More: JC Penney Posts a Huge Loss; Shares Tumble)

Let's highlight some cringe-worthy stats: Traffic for the quarter declined 17 percent, worse than the 13 percent decline for the year. Conversion rates, or the rate at which shoppers become buyers, dropped 10 percent, also worse than the annual average of a drop of 9 percent. And gross margins fell 600 basis points as clearance increased to 24 percent of the mix versus 14 percent of the mix last year.

Don't forget the Internet business sank 34 percent. That is simply hard to believe, especially considering other department stores are reporting 30-percent-plus growth in their ecommerce businesses.

JCP's Johnson: We Made Some Big Mistakes
CNBC's Courtney Reagan has an update from JC Penney's conference call. Stacey Widlitz, SW Retail Advisors, says the retailer's CEO has conceded to making a mistake.

Stats aside, here is the big news: Johnson admits he "made some big mistakes last year." That's strange, because in a recent interview with CNBC, Johnson said he would do it much of the same way he had done.

In addition, after burning through mounds of cash, Johnson has come to the realization that his customer prefers a sale (we were previously told the word "sale" was removed from the J.C. Penney dictionary). Really? My Twitter stream could have told you that.

The decision to do away with sales last year had no testing behind it. So it is not a mystery why J.C. Penney has done a 180 in one year when it comes to its promotional stance — just as we suggested last quarter.

(Read More: Bill Ackman on J.C. Penney)

Finally, over the past year I have written about "less is more" when it comes to J.C. Penney's communication with the investment community. Just two weeks ago, Johnson suggested in a CNBC interview that growth will return in 2013. Fast forward two weeks and he said from a recording studio in Plano, Texas, that he doesn't want to be in the guidance business. No commentary was provided on February trends or growth for the year, and store-in-store results will not be discussed until one year in the mix.

Turns out the year was not a total loss. Johnson learned two things: First, don't mess with our sales; and second, sometimes less IS more.

Stacey Widlitz is president of SW Retail Advisors, a consulting firm focusing on channel checks with offices in New York City and London. She is also a contributor for CNBC.

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