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.

 

An Inside Look at the New Retail Strategy at J.C. Penney (Part 1)

On September 1st, J.C. Penney (JCP) debuted more new “shops,” bringing it about 10% of the way through a transformation plan aimed at having 700 of the chain’s 1100 department stores offer shoppers 100 distinct “store within a store” experiences by 2015. My wife and I used part of our Labor Day holiday to do some market research at a local Portland mall and check out the progress at one of these renovated JCP locations.

I have been doing a fair amount of work on JCP lately, trying to figure out if it is a turnaround story I want to play or not. For me, there are three essential questions to ask when making this kind of investment decision. One, do I want to make a bullish bet on a JCP turnaround under new CEO Ron Johnson? Two, at what share price do I feel the risk-reward is attractive enough for the stock? And three, since this is a multi-year turnaround story (renovating 700 stores while they remain open is not easy), at what point in the process would it make the most sense to start buying?

With much of the valuation work done already from my office, my in-person store visit on Monday was more about checking out how the renovations looked and how shoppers were responding to them. I went to one location, in the morning, on a holiday, so this is by no means enough observation to draw strong conclusions about customer traffic, but it was enough to get an idea of where these stores are heading over the next few years.

As soon as you walk into the store, you see the original “store within a store” concept, Sephora, that JCP introduced even before Ron Johnson took over as CEO:

The Sephora stores inside J.C. Penney have done very well. They look identical to actual Sephora stores, just with fewer square feet. The successes JCP has seen so far are often cited as a reason why the concept of converting the entire JCP store into dozens of specialty shops has huge potential. I would agree with that assessment, but it completely depends on what products you are selling. Sephora is very popular right now, so it would be hard for it to do poorly. What about other brands? That is the big question mark at this point.

Which brings us to the new shops JCP unveiled this month; IZOD, Liz Claiborne, and JCP (a generic house brand for basics). These are in addition to those already in place; Sephora, iJeans by Buffalo, Levi’s, The Original Arizona Jean Co, and MNG by Mango. You may have noticed something odd about that list already, but we’ll get to that shortly. For those who have not been in a JCP lately, here is what these new shops look like:

IZOD

Levi’s

JCP

Notice there is nothing earth-shattering or particularly new here in terms of product. What they have essentially done is group product by brand and install upgraded fixtures and displays, so you feel like you are shopping at a smaller Gap or J Crew store within the mall, not at the enormous J.C. Penney anchor location. For instance, here is what most of the store’s floor at JCP still looks like:

Obviously, cleaning up the stores by making them less cluttered, adding better lighting, and displaying the clothes more effectively is probably an investment worth making, if you are trying to revamp a department store and position it for long-term survival. Still, the early response by customers has been poor. Making the stores look nicer has not counteracted the negative impact from JCP’s decision to reduce the number of sales they run and opt instead for everyday low prices on most items. Rather than paying $25 for a sweater originally marked $75 or $80 (although nobody ever paid that price), JCP has faith that shoppers will make the same purchase, even if it is marked $25 from the start with no discount. Shoppers are balking. The first quarter after the change (Q1 2012), sales dropped 19%. Last quarter they fell by 22%. I don’t think there is reason to think the current quarter will be much different.

The pricing issue was something I made a point to watch for during my store visit. Again, it was before noon on Labor Day, so there was not much traffic in the stores. However, you may have noticed that there weren’t any shoppers in the photos above. I was not the only one in the store, and I did not ask anyone to get out of the shots. So where were they? Well, look at that, there they are:

The clearance rack. Despite JCP’s goal of getting 80%+ of their sales from full price merchandise with their new everyday low price strategy, the store still has product it needs to move quickly, so the clearance racks have not gone away. Interestingly, the signs on these racks do not simply say “clearance” but rather “clearance – $5 and up.” Why put “$5” on the sign, which just signals you have really cheap sale merchandise (and gets you thinking that full price may be overpriced)? I don’t know. It seems counter-productive. My wife even mentioned that she saw a $20 sweater that she liked, but since it was positioned close to the sale racks, she instinctively looked up to see if it was on sale. When it wasn’t, she questioned whether people would think $20 was a good enough price (even though a $20 sweater, on its own, is quite inexpensive). This is what JCP is facing with their new strategy.

Even bigger than pricing strategy is that shoppers are still gravitating to the sale racks, even with these new, upgraded specialty shops. That is where the customers were on Monday, which jives with the trend they have seen so far this year; less traffic, fewer sales, and lower gross margin on each sale. Shoppers are still fixated on sales, and if you don’t have as many, they will either leave the store, or only buy the cheaper stuff. Not a good recipe for a retail turnaround (given that JCP is trying to do the exact opposite).

After my in-store visit to JCP this week I was hoping to shed some light on the first of three questions I mentioned at the outset of this post; do I want to make a bullish bet on a JCP turnaround? When you listen to Ron Johnson articulate the ideas he has, they make sense and you can’t help but be inclined to think he just might make it work. And he might. However, I had mixed feelings after seeing the store. The shops look nice, but so far customers have not responded, in large part due to pricing. They still flock to the sale racks.

I think JCP can fix this problem to a large degree by offering unique product (like Sephora) in order to differentiate themselves from other stores like Sears, Kohls, and Macys. I am not sure that the Levi’s, Arizona Jean Co, and JCP brands do that. Even Liz Claiborne, which is exclusive to JCP, might not be different enough from other similar brands found in competing stores to make people want to go to JCP first.

Not only that, but did you notice the odd choice for the initial set of new specialty shops? Levi’s, the Original Arizona Jeans Co, and iJeans by Buffalo are all among the first eight shops. How many choices of jeans does one need? And is that really the best way to use their concept, by duplicating product so much? And you know there are other brands of jeans in the store already (I saw Lee jeans right next to the Levi’s shop, for instance). In fact, while we were there my wife overheard a female shopper ask for some help finding a pair of new jeans. The employee walked her over to the Levi’s shop, but then told her, unfortunately, that there were jeans scattered around the store, so although this was the best place to start, she would have to walk the entire floor to see everything they had.

That type of shopping experience is exactly what you would expect from a large,├é┬ádisorganized department store; the exact model JCP is trying to get away from. If you are aiming for a wonderful shopping experience (Ron Johnson is aiming low — trying to becoming “America’s favorite store”), you probably don’t need three denim brands in your first eight shops. And if you do, at least put them close together and remove the other jeans from the rest of the store. First impressions are everything, as new shops are going to be added periodically over the next three years.

As you can see, this is still very much a work in progress. So, I remain skeptical and will likely want to see some proof of changing customer behavior in future quarters before I take a bullish stance. Right now it is more about the potential for success (if executed better in the future) and less about solid progress thus far.

More thoughts on JCP are coming shortly, so stay tuned.

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