Green Room

Middle America rejects elitist leader’s approach

posted at 12:49 pm on July 22, 2012 by

Soon, we hope, elitist governance will be replaced by common sense leadership. Soon, we hope, a man who has little understanding of middle America will be replaced by someone who knows what Americans value and who doesn’t think of his fellow citizens as artless primitives.

Yes, soon, we hope, the board of directors of JC Penney will replace CEO Ron Johnson with somebody who actually understands their customers.

What—you thought I was writing about something else?

Pardon me while I take a side trip away from politics to business, specifically, retail business. As a former JC Penney loyalist who only gave up her fidelity to the department store when it was clear it no longer offered her what she wanted and no longer displayed its goods in such a way as to entice her to explore its offerings, I have a lot to say on this topic. (And already have.)

In a nutshell, JC Penney’s CEO Ron Johnson decided to redo the company’s brand and configuration. Among his changes— new logo, a new promo campaign, getting rid of coupon mailers and replacing them with beautiful (and expensive-looking) booklets, locking in pricing for longer periods, getting rid of commission sales for employees, and redoing the stores themselves so that they’re…well, less attractive (hey—just one woman’s opinion).

Now comes news that he’s also looking to go to cashier-less checkouts:

…Johnson announced JCPenney’s plans to completely change the checkout experience at stores. Using advanced Wi-Fi networks, mobile checkout, RFID (radio-frequency identification) tracking systems for goods, and all sorts of self-checkout possibilities, JCPenney will get rid of cashiers, cash registers, and checkout counters, the staples near the exits of virtually every store, as soon as 2014.

It’s hard for me to imagine this tactic going over well here in frugal Lancaster County, PA, where shoppers not only use cash but actual change to make purchases at times (it’s not unusual to see a group of Amish shopping together at the local mall). If it flops, it will be one in a long list that seem to me tied to Johnson’s elitist approach and ignorance of his shopper. (One wonders if he himself has ever shopped at a Penney’s.)

I don’t have an MBA, nor do I have any business experience in retail, except as a part-time drugstore clerk when going through college. That won’t stop me from weighing in on this retail disaster.

The first rule of any kind of recruitment (including of new shoppers) is “retention.” Retain your loyal customers. Penney’s has driven them away. They’re women like me, around mumble-mumble age (think empty-nesters).  Johnson has cheesed us off, and no wonder. He doesn’t get us. At. All.

Here’s a peek at his thinking—from an interview by Fortune’s Jennifer Reingold at Brainstorm Tech, when someone in the audience asked Johnson about his previous experience at Target (where he worked before spending many years at Apple—which explains a lot). My commentary breaks up these excerpts:

You know, I believe most of what we do is forward-thinking and you rely on your intuition, and your intuition comes from all your experiences. I had a lot at Target, a lot at Apple, a lot of places. Just immersing yourself in the world, and I always try to make decisions forward-thinking, based on what I think is going to be needed now, and not what worked yesterday.

So Target goes back to the 90’s. What I learned about Target, at Target, though, because I was involved with kind of the movement toward design, that really middle America appreciates good design, right?

They understand the stuff when it’s presented well, and so I have great confidence that as we present a higher taste level product within our price points to our core middle America customer, that they’ll respond….

If you’d like a sample of the “higher taste levels” to which he thinks middle America will respond, take a look at this lovely ad supposedly targeting us:

That’s beautiful, isn’t it? I can’t seem to get the picture of that auctioneer’s gaping mouth out of my head. Must go …wash up.

I was also awestruck by the choice of a new Penney logo. Beauty and creativity once again! Target uses the concentric circles that remind shoppers of …well, something related to its name. Can’t think of the connection right now, but that’s because in middle America, we’re sometimes too slow to get to those higher levels of thinking and taste. Anyway, Target has the circles, and Penney came up with—a square! That’s brilliance for you. That alone is worth the billion dollars they spent on marketing last year.

More from Mr. Johnson:

The Mayan culture defined design as design’s purpose was for the love of humanity. That was a really interesting thought. You design things for the love of humanity. You think about the Apple store was designed to make technology easy for people, to enrich their lives, right?…You know, I want to take middle America, put a big bear hug around middle America, and slowly take them places where they didn’t know they could get.

No offense, but, please, hold off the bear hug, okay? As for taking me places I didn’t know I could get—well, I’ve found my way to another really great place already. It’s called Bon-Ton. I park outside their store now when I enter the mall. I used to park at Penney’s until I discovered this place was better. So, in a way, you’ve already “taken me places where I didn’t know I could get.” No need to do more of that.

More pearls from the Penney CEO:

Because today, the middle America shopping experience is not like the upscale shopping experience. I don’t think they’re treated with the same respect. They don’t think they have the same level of service.

We think, I really believe middle America deserves that, and so we’re going to design a new interface for retail that’s really inspired by that Mayan principle of a love of humanity. And we’ll do that. It’s just going to take time.


Well, some retailers have figured out service levels, without the Mayans’ help. Specifically, they’ve determined precise levels of service that customers desire—from hovering to leave-me-alone–and designed their sales approach accordingly. They actually know their customers. And they refrain from bear hugs and talking about them as if they’re unsophisticated naifs whose consciousness needs raising.

As to designing a retail approach around the Mayans love-of-humanity gestalt, I can see why it will take so long to turn around Penney’s—retail as an expression of humanity’s love is quite the mission. Might take a lifetime.

In the meantime, I’ll be taking my love of humanity, along with my cash, to other stores. And it appears a whole bunch of us middle American hicks are doing the same.


Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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I knew nothing about any of this. I did know that the last few times I was in JC Penney’s that I walked out with nothing.
The same thing happened at Sear’s.
No service at all.

Pecos on July 22, 2012 at 3:24 PM

Mayan Humanity?

What is known of Maya ritual practices comes from two sources: the extant chronicles and codices of the missionary-ethnographers who arrived with or shortly after the Spanish conquest and subsequent archeological data.

The historical record is more sparse than that for the Aztecs and can only be reliable in regards to the PostClassical period, long after the Maya collapse.

The chroniclers have also been accused of colonial bias, but our most comprehensive account of Maya society, by Diego de Landa, has been described by modern experts as an “ethnographic masterpiece”, despite his role in the destruction of Mayan codices and culture.

The archeological data has continued to expand as more excavations are undertaken, confirming much of what the early chroniclers wrote.

A major breakthrough was the deciphering of the Maya syllabary in the 1950s, which has allowed the glyphs carved into many temples to be understood.

Excavation and forensic examination of human remains has also thrown light on the age, sex and cause of death of sacrificial victims.

So much for them being humanists…lol…

JC Penneys’ CEO hasn’t got a clue…

Scrumpy on July 22, 2012 at 4:14 PM

Found this out on the Interwebz:

The company is trying to recreate their image by taking a more progressive look at America.

Well, that explains it all. Like “Newsroom”, the patronizing “progressive” shoves crap down our throats that we don’t want and if it fails will them whine that we were just too stupid to “get it”, not that he was too stupid to listen to his customers.

Typical “progressive” mindset. Huffpo says “But while J.C. Penney has taken a leap toward progressive …”

Ok, that explains what is going on. Look, nobody in this country much cares about “progressive” anything. There are a few, yes, and like socialism, it only gets implemented when shoved down people’s throats from above against their will. But sadly, unlike East Germany, we have a choice. He’s going to ruin the company with his “progressive” policies just as “progressive” polices ruin pretty much everything anywhere they are tried.

Did their customers ASK for these changes or were they thrust upon us “for our own good” because once we see what’s in it, we’ll like it, unless we are so stupid we don’t “get it”. “Progressives” are never wrong, simply misunderstood and disagreement with them automatically means you are “stupid” because if you “get it” you will automatically like it, or some such crap.

Just more patronizing and condescending crap from a “progressive” “elite”. I don’t think he’s going to last long. The board of directors will toss him out on his ear.

crosspatch on July 22, 2012 at 5:12 PM


As soon as I got the news “no more coupons” from them, I went straight to my local JCP and told them they’d lost my business, since their selection is weak, design and quality iffy and their prices now in the toilet (now comparable to Macy’s!). They reacted as if I’d been customer #3,481,429 who told them that morning. I also emailed headquarters, and received an arrogant, non-responsive diatribe days later.

For me, KMart and Marshall’s make up for them.

Fire the Apple S.O.B. NOW!

Czar of Defenestration on July 22, 2012 at 5:34 PM

I’m not on Penney’s mailing list, but they advertise heavily in the local liberal rag and I can’t resist looking at pretty pictures with my coffee, so I usually glance through the inserts. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw what must have been one of the first of the new ads — a gorgeous cafe-au-lait girl in a bikini with BRIGHT orange toe nails on a beach chair in front of a BRIGHT aqua blue body of water.

Right then I knew they were on the road to ruin and was quite happy about it as they were one of the first to jump on the get-Rush bandwagon in the Fluke affair.

PS: Anyone who’s ever walked into a Penney’s knows there ain’t nary a metrosexual within miles.

erp on July 22, 2012 at 7:24 PM

From neighboring Chester County, I concur, Libby. They’ve lost me for some time now and this only strengthens my resolve to avoid JCP at all costs.
Besides, I prefer Boscov’s.

either orr on July 22, 2012 at 7:42 PM

Sounds as if the CEO is a big fan of the humanity of the Mayan God Chaac Pul…

Natrium on July 22, 2012 at 7:47 PM

Amen. I have been a loyal JCP customer (like the author, think empty nester) and the new marketing and store customer service is terrible. The nearest JCP is an hour’s drive — those coupons always got me in the store and made it worth the time and effort. No more. Their first quarter reports were awful — I’m sure the second quarter will continue the bleeding.

kansaskaye on July 22, 2012 at 10:22 PM

From neighboring Chester County, I concur, Libby. They’ve lost me for some time now and this only strengthens my resolve to avoid JCP at all costs.
Besides, I prefer Boscov’s.

I like Boscov’s, too! Especially their housewares department.

As to the Penney CEO…if you read the entire interview I linked to, you’d probably be even more appalled. It’s a bunch of gobbledygook, mumbo-jumbo. How did he get this position?

I recognize Penney’s could benefit from some positive changes, but not the kinds he envisions.

Libby Sternberg on July 23, 2012 at 6:53 AM

The only reason I ever go into a Sears store anymore is for vacuum cleaner bags; when my vacuum dies, I’m going bagless on my new one.

I loved JC Penneys and have done a bunch of shopping there in the past couple of years; but the last couple of times I’ve been in there, the selection stunk. At our local store, there were still retail staff, but there is NO FREAKING WAY I’m going to a retail business that has no people working there. It’s a bizarre concept; I refuse to use self-checkout at the grocery store, too. I want a person I can chat with, a person I can question, a person I can complain to.

No people? No customers either.

People complained about Ellen being a spokeswoman; I think Ellen actually got the raw end of that deal. She associated herself with a CEO who’s a complete MORON.

mountainaires on July 23, 2012 at 12:27 PM

People complained about Ellen being a spokeswoman; I think Ellen actually got the raw end of that deal. She associated herself with a CEO who’s a complete MORON.

I completely agree, mountainaires! I was never bothered by the Ellen Degeneres choice for a spokeswoman. I find her very likable and, in true conservative fashion, don’t give a whit about her private life. I thought she was a good choice.

If Johnson gets canned, I hope he doesn’t blame it on choosing her as a spokeswoman. That thought did occur to me.

Libby Sternberg on July 23, 2012 at 12:47 PM

I wondered who would take off those electronic tags at Jacques Pennays if there was only self check-out. Just kidding, I don’t care. I read the story about the Apple dude and thought, no biggie. One less place to shop. Remember Venture?

Fallon on July 23, 2012 at 4:29 PM