Can Martha Stewart Make Shopping at Penney's 'a Good Thing'?

Can Martha Stewart Make Shopping at Penney's 'a Good Thing'?
Can Martha Stewart Make Shopping at Penney's 'a Good Thing'?

J.C. Penney (JCP) is betting on the nation's iconic domestic diva to help reinvent the staid department store concept, and in turn, how America shops.

The retailer announced its plans this week to launch Martha Stewart home and lifestyle retail shops within most of J.C. Penney's 1,100 stores by February 2013.

Stewart's in-store shops, which will offer not just her products, but "on-site know-how and advice,"are a bold first move from Ron Johnson, who became CEO of J.C. Penney last month and has set out to do nothing less than redefine department stores.

While grandiose claims from CEOs are nothing new, industry-watchers are taking Johnson's pronouncement pretty seriously. That's because Johnson knows a thing or two about developing ground-breaking retail formats.

He joined J.C. Penney from Apple (AAPL), where he was the creative force behind the company's highly successful and influential Apple Stores.

Before that, Johnson was a key architect of Target's (TGT) "mass-tige" (mass-prestige) formula. In the late 1990s, he helped bring the chain exclusive collections from high-end designers -- a tactic unheard-of at the time for a discount retailer. Target's string of partnerships went on to include lines from Isaac Mizrahi, Missoni and Jason Wu, among others.

Adding the Flavor of Apple

Stewart, of course, is no stranger to retail partnerships.

She sells Martha Stewart-branded home goods at Macy's, a line of paint, cabinets and faucets at Home Depot, and pet products at PetSmart, among other lines.

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When it comes to details about how the new Stewart stores will help remake the shopping experience, J.C. Penney is being tight lipped. Corporate communications manager Kate Coultas would only say: "The Martha Stewart experience at J.C. Penney will allow consumers to engage with the brand in a way they never have before."

There have been whispers that the Martha Stewart shops at J.C. Penney could take a cue from Apple Stores' Genius Bars.

But the retailer's stated plans to create "destinations" for home and lifestyle products in an "inspiring" and "educational environment" suggests J. C. Penney will find new ways to impart Stewart's decorating, crafting and cooking prowess to consumers to create -- as the currently popular buzzword in retail suggests -- an "experiential" shopping experience.

Still Courting Middle America

Beyond the wider goal of reshaping how America shops, Johnson is focused on simply reviving J.C. Penney, which has been in a sales slump, lagging behind competitors such as Macy's (M) and Kohl's (KSS).

"Johnson needs to reinvent the J.C. Penney, brand -- and indeed the entire department store experience -- to make it relevant for how women shop, work and play today," Craig Johnson, CEO of retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners, tells DailyFinance.

Industry pundits speculated that Johnson would brush J.C. Penney with Target's upscale, hip vibe. But his decision to tap Stewart, who built her home decorating empire by appealing to mainstream tastes, signals the chain will continue to court Middle America, always J.C. Penney's sweet spot.

Stewart herself seems to think Johnson can pull off the makeover. "Ron Johnson is a true innovator and someone who has been fundamentally redefining the retail experience," she said in a statement. "I am greatly impressed with his plans for changing an American classic, J.C. Penney, to make it a very new and different shopping experience."