An Inside Look at the New Retail Strategy at J.C. Penney (Part 2)

As was discussed yesterday, the much-talked about turnaround strategy at J.C. Penney (JCP), being led by Ron Johnson, is going to take a lot longer than many initially thought. Renovating two-thirds of their store base will take 3-4 years. Getting customers to understand and appreciate their new pricing model will take time, if it happens at all. If you contemplate the finished product in 2015, as Johnson has outlined it, the new JCP is likely to be very unique and intriguing for a large subset of shoppers. One hundred specialty shops, with large well-known brands such as Nike and Martha Stewart, connected by a “street” complete with food and beverage stations, comfy couches, free wi-fi, seasonal services such as Santa and gingerbread cookies for the kids in December or yoga classes and smoothies for moms to kick off the new year… it sounds great in theory. And that’s just it, in theory.

The end product won’t be completed for three more years. Until then, the stores will constantly have areas being boarded up and redone. With so many other choices in the typical mall, will shoppers leave JCP and have little reason to come back, even if the store in 2015 looks cool? And that’s another problem… the cool factor. It was obvious when I was at JCP on Monday that a large chunk of their core customers are women 50 years and over. Is that customer going to care that there is free wi-fi or nice couches in the store? Will they shop for denim fits and dyes at an iPad station? Are they going to warm to the RFID-enabled self-checkout kiosks that Johnson is planning? Sure, placing your shopping bag on the table and having the checkout station automatically read its contents and ring up the purchase is nice (all you have to do is swipe your card, no bar code scanning required), but is that too tech-heavy for the older generation? Can’t you envision the line at the cashier backing up pretty quickly if there is only one actual human operating it?

It seems this new prototype JCP store is geared towards a younger audience and I am not sure that crowd will head over to JCP even if it is designed for them. Again, you might have 100 shops in your JCP, but there are at least that many in the mall itself, and that is where most of these people already loyally shop. He won’t say it directly, but Ron Johnson probably knows that he really is launching a completely new store here, and will have to market it heavily so people know it exists and will give it a try.

Which brings us to the timing aspect of the investment story for JCP shares. The stock went from the high 20’s to the low 40’s when Johnson was hired, merely based on his previous retail successes. After Q1 2012 same-store sales dropped nearly 20%, the shares cratered to below $20 each. They have since rebounded to the mid 20’s, as investors hope for a rebound as more newly renovated shops are added. Second quarter comps fell by more than 20%. I don’t think an IZOD shop and a JCP house brand shop are going to move the needle in Q3, so I would expect similar results again this quarter. Whether they are down 16%, 20%, or 24%, though, is anyone’s guess.

When we get to the holiday season, then it really gets interesting. Wall Street analysts are an overly optimistic bunch, and typically project sales improvement slowly over time, regardless of the situation. The same is true of JCP today. Fourth quarter sales estimates right now are for a drop of 11% year-over-year, so the consensus is that revenue losses will be cut in half within a couple of months from now. Possible? Sure, maybe better sell-through of Levi’s jeans, from the new, fresh shop design, will offset a lot of the negatives from the older areas of the store.

But what if the holiday season for JCP actually gets worse? After all, they are trying to cut down on sales and offer everyday low prices. If customers balked at buying full priced items (regardless of the actual price level) over Memorial Day, why would their buying patterns change in November and December? In fact, would they not be even more inclined to look for sales over the holidays? JCP cutting back on sales should hurt them the most when everybody else is running Black Friday doorbusters. JCP already had a TV commercial making fun of long lines outside stores at 4am. Now they will be competing against them. How will sales be on Cyber Monday at jcp.com? Probably worse than macys.com and kohls.com, right?

I know it is not the consensus view, but one of the reasons I have not bought a single share of JCP is that I think it is reasonable to think sales could get worse, not better, during the fourth quarter. If the first nine months of 2012 see sales declines of 20%, on average, why couldn’t a lack of Black Friday and Cyber Monday doorbuster specials result in a 30% decline during the ever-important holiday shopping season? Seems possible, in which case investors are in for a rude surprise when Q4 sales results come out early in 2013. Another round of selling may very well occur.

At that point, though, maybe it will be a better time to dip one’s toe in, if in fact you want to place a wager on the long-term future of JCP. Next year the company will be lapping an absolutely horrible financial performance from 2012. The bar will be low and expectations will be uninspiring. Even if 2013 brings more of the same; more renovations and little in the way of increased customer excitement, it is hard to imagine sales falling another 20% from 2012 levels. While a meaningful turn might be a ways off, 2012 might still mark the bottom for sales losses, and for the stock. And we all know the stock market is forward-looking, so even if we won’t see material improvement until 2014 or 2015, investors will bid up the stock ahead of time, just like they have in recent weeks on hopes that things will get better very soon.

Full Disclosure: No position in any of the companies mentioned at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.