By any measure, it's been a rough year for the struggling department store chain. J.C. Penney alienated many of its long-term customers with a major overhaul of the traditionally staid stores, complete with dozens of designer collaborations -- ŗ la Target -- and a rotating merchandise component "to keep things interesting."
Oh, and it did away with sales, coupons, and, by and large, special prices.
Johnson, coasting on his success at Apple and Target, announced in early 2012 that he planned to transform J.C. Penney from tired to trendsetting. In short order, he revamped the store layouts and restructured the merchandise mix. Then, just months into the total makeover, he implemented a "complete, open and integrated suite" of retail analytic solutions -- tools that he boasted would help him build Americaís Favorite Store.
In a press release last summer, Johnson announced J.C. Penney had partnered with Oracle to "simplify processes, reduce layers and equip business teams to better shape assortments and respond faster to customer preferences." The retailer also implemented Oracle Retail Merchandising Analytics, a business intelligence application that provides merchants and planners with real-time, mobile insight into item and category performance, including key metrics such as inventory position, sales, stock ledger, cost, forecast, and promotions.
Johnson seemed as excited about the analytics as he was with his innovative pricing strategy, which replaced the clearance racks, special discounts, and limited-time coupons that consumers came to associate with the store having everyday prices, month-long values, and "best prices" on the first and third Fridays of every month.
In the press release, Johnson stated that it was imperative for J.C. Penney to simplify processes and its technology infrastructure so it could "deliver the best possible customer experience." As he put it, "A critical step on this journey is providing our team with better access to the information they need to make strategic business decisions, drive performance and exceed customer expectations."
But neither Johnson nor his team seemed to gain any meaningful insight from all of those retail analytic solutions. Because in early April, Johnson got the boot -- and just this week, Penney's issued a public apology:
Why is the store saying "Sorry?" Because it got so busy trying to reinvent itself that it forgot about the needs of its customers. It dropped brands that its customers loved, such as St. Johnís Bay, it stopped sending out coupons, and it banished the clearance racks.
But the new brands designed to attract younger shoppers were slow to catch on. Customers missed their coupons. And frankly, the whole store redesign made shopping confusing.
Sales declined 25 percent last year, the stock price fell, and J.C. Penney discovered a new look was no substitute for customer loyalty.
On April 8, Myron Ullman replaced Johnson. And now, the whole Johnson rebranding experiment is over.
So what happened? Did the analytics fail? I don't think so. The analytics were just too little, too late. They came after the fact -- after Johnson and his team had already implemented wholesale changes. Don't you think someone should have been analyzing the data before the retailer made all those decisions to change the merchandise and the way it was priced?
In fairness, can you expect state-of-the-art software -- the best analytic solutions -- to overcome the questionable judgment of a guy who had a connection to one of the most annoying ads to ever to run on television? If you don't remember watching the ad, you may remember hearing it: The whole ad features one consumer after another, screaming -- make that screeching -- "Noooooooo!" in the worst voices ever recorded.
Here. Watch it for yourself if you dare:
Johnson, or someone on his team, apparently thought the ad captured the essence of the relaunch of the retail chain -- and actually gave Mother, the New York City ad agency that created it, the thumbs up.
The ad gained a lot of traction on the Internet, largely from people who vowed to never set foot in a J.C. Penney store again and wondered whether the executives who approved it were "sober when they signed the ad contract."
And many, it seemed, kept their promises. They found alternatives to J.C. Penney -- leaving the retailer in far worse shape than it was at the start of Johnson's brief term at the top. Shares of the company stock tumbled 50 percent during Johnson's tenure, and the chain bled $427 million in the fourth quarter of 2012 alone.
So what happens now? The new ad pleads with disgruntled customers to come back: "It's no secret: Recently J.C. Penney changed. Some changes you liked, and some you didn't. But what matters with mistakes is what we learn...
"Come back to J.C. Penney. We heard you. Now we'd love to see you."
Johnson is gone. But the analytical tools remain. Maybe now they'll actually have a chance to provide some useful insight -- and customers and investors alike can only hope the new executive team has the courage to use it.
When was the last time you shopped at J.C. Penney? Do you think analytical insight can help save the struggling retailer? Or is it just too late?