J.C. Penney is Done Apologizing

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 19:  Myron E. Ullman, chairman and chief executive officer, J.C. Penney Co., speaks during a news conference in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. J. C. Penney Company announced the launch of American Living, a new, comprehensive lifestyle brand created exclusively for JCPenney's classic traditional lifestyle customer by Global Brand Concepts, a division of Polo Ralph Lauren.  (Photo by Robert Caplin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Robert Caplin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Looks like J.C. Penney's big apology tour is already over.

Less than two weeks after publicly apologizing to disgruntled customers in a TV commercial, the retailer has released another ad thanking those same customers for coming back.

The ad, entitled "Thank You," sings the praises of J.C. Penney's customers, and then recounts how the retailers has backtracked on many of former CEO Ron Johnson's changes. The ad then reports that the wayward customers have returned.

"And now, we're happy to say, you've come back to us," says the ad. "We're speechless, except for two little words: thank you."

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How many of those customers have actually come back remains to be seen. The retailer's quarterly report is due out this week, and it will be at least another quarter before we start to get a clear picture of how its sales have fared since J.C. Penney abandoned its "fair and square" pricing strategy, brought back house brands like St. John's Bay, fired its CEO and apologized for his missteps. In the meantime, though, there are indications that things are looking up for the old-look JCP: Cleveland Research analysts said this week that the retailer is seeing a "significant" sales boost due to advertising and promotional activity.

Regardless of how the recovery is proceeding, though, one thing is clear: J.C. Penney feels like it has done enough apologizing.

Sure, it's still taking feedback on its Facebook page, and saying all the right things in response. But the commercial makes it clear that it sees its contrition as complete: It apologized, the customers came back, and now it's very grateful.

And here's the best indicator that the apology tour is over: After just two weeks, the company has stopped airing the apology ad and pulled it from the company's official YouTube page. If you follow the original link to the commercial, you'll get a message that the account has made it private, meaning it can't be viewed by the general public.

Company spokeswoman Daphne Avila confirmed that the campaign was short-lived.

"The 'It's No Secret' campaign was only scheduled to run a couple of days as a precursor to our Mother's Day campaign," said Avila in an emailed statement. "However, we encourage the customer dialogue to continue through our social media channels."

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There's nothing wrong with that, of course: J.C. Penney was under no obligation to apologize, and we certainly didn't expect them to spend months self-flagellating. But it's worth noting that other commercials from previous ad campaigns, including the "Yours Truly" spot it ran during the Oscars, are still available for viewing on the YouTube page, so it's not standard practice to delete old ads. The apology ad, in other words, was targeted for early deletion.

Clearly, J.C. Penney's new management wants to forget the disastrous Ron Johnson era ever happened. For the sake of its sales figures, it should hope that its customers do the same.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

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J.C. Penney is Done Apologizing

It was repeated so often that it became dogma: Ron Johnson's greatest sin was ditching the sales and coupons. Johnson himself called it a "mistake," and one of his last acts as CEO was to abandon his pricing strategy and bring back the coupons.

While many commenters cheered the coupon comeback, a few were more skeptical of the return to the old regime. In fact, many noted that the retailer was obviously just jacking up prices just so they could lower them again with discounts.

Obviously J.C. Penney needs to bring back the sales and coupons if it wants to attract its wayward customers, but it should probably find a more subtle way to do it. Johnson was criticized for abruptly abolishing coupons without first testing the strategy; if the new management just slaps on higher price tags and then hands out coupons, it risks making the same error in the opposite direction.

One commenter identified herself as a sales associate for J.C. Penney, and said she hated the "dog and pony show" of the old coupon regime. Her comment got more than 300 'likes,' as well as comments from other sales associates who expressed how difficult it was to deal with price adjustments, extreme couponers and confusing sales.

"As an associate, I had Nightmares in Nov & Dec of 2011 when the coupons were out in Groves [sic]," said another commenter, who went on to suggest that the retailer should place limits on how many coupons shoppers can use.

The lesson for management? If you're going to bring back coupons, don't make a complete return to the "death by coupon" era -- it can be a huge pain for your employees.
In overhauling the retailer's apparel offerings, Johnson evidently wanted to transform its customer base into something more closely resembling Abercrombie's young and skinny crowd. Unfortunately, that meant that J.C. Penney's larger customers were left out in the cold.

Various commenters complained that plus-size offerings have dwindled significantly, and that they'd like to see all styles of clothing available in larger sizes. If the new management (which is mainly the old management) wants to win back customers, it will need to make sure customers of all sizes are accommodated.
Several commenters said that they missed being able to shop and order through a catalog.

Sure, most people who can't make it into the store will be inclined to shop online, which is more cost-effective for retailers than shipping out heavy catalogs and taking orders by phone. But members of J.C. Penney's older customer base may not be as technologically inclined, so it's likely missing out on sales by not providing it as an option.

The retailer has already made concession to its older shoppers by bringing back St. John's Bay and other "basic" clothing. Making it easier for them to shop from home would also be a good move.
One innovation that Johnson brought over from the Apple Store was the mobile checkout: Instead of waiting in line, customers could get checked out by a roving cashier toting a smartphone or tablet.
But much like the pricing strategy, mobile checkouts apparently don't play as well in a big department store as they do in the Apple Store (AAPL). We've heard from J.C. Penney employees complaining about the switch, and it looks like customers aren't thrilled either; a few commenters noted, for instance, that the process makes getting a receipt a hassle.

Maybe the system has been implemented poorly, or maybe it's just a case of an older customer base being confounded by innovation. Either way, this looks to be another change that J.C. Penney should scale back or reconsider.
Ron Johnson had a vision of a department store as a marketplace -- instead of just organizing clothes by department, he would have a collection of boutiques, each dedicated to one brand.

But the stores-within-a-store concept might be confusing some customers. One commenter pointed out that the layout makes comparison shopping difficult, forcing customers to visit multiple boutiques just to find a pair of jeans. Other commenters echoed that complaint, noting that they found the layout so frustrating that they left the store empty-handed.

The retailer has burned through a whole lot of cash remaking its stores, so we imagine management isn't thrilled at the prospect of undoing those changes. But if they want to get sales figures back up, they'll need to arrange their stores in a way that makes comparison shopping among its brands easier.
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