Middle America rejects elitist leader’s approach
posted at 12:49 pm on July 22, 2012 by Libby Sternberg
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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