Three Leadership Lessons from Ron Johnson’s Debacle at J.C. Penney

Ron Johnson's Debacle at J.C. Penney

Monday’s dismissal of J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson comes as no surprise.

In late 2011, J.C. Penney had hired Ron Johnson from Apple to revive the sagging fortunes of the storied retailer. He was deemed as a retailing genius who had proved himself by creating Target’s hip-yet-inexpensive cachet and then by leading Apple’s highly lucrative retail stores.

During his 17-month tenure, Ron Johnson had poured hundreds of millions into rapidly remaking the retailer. Mostly, his attempt at the high-stakes makeover of J.C. Penney hadn’t worked. Revenue deteriorated sharply, feedback from customers and employees was persistently negative, and the J.C. Penney share price declined by over 50%.

Lesson 1: Don’t disenfranchise your traditional customer base

Over the years, J.C. Penney’s economic moat had declined considerably. J.C. Penney lost customers to higher-end retailers and specialty stores who had started to offer better value at lower prices. At the other end, Wal-Mart and Target wooed price-sensitive customers with better-than-basic goods.

When retailing relatively undifferentiated merchandise, one of the key levers to revenue is discounts and promotions. Like other retailers, J.C. Penney had trained its customers to buy largely when its stores had a sale. Shoppers recognized that J.C. Penney’s tag prices were made-up to be marked down during sales events and were fixated on coupons, discounts, and promotions. Shoppers had come to regard of shopping at J.C. Penney as a treasure hunt for significantly marked-down merchandise.

Discounts and Promotions at J.C Penney

Within weeks of joining J.C. Penney, Ron Johnson observed that three-quarters of everything sold had been discounted by at least 50% from list price. Instead of marking up the tag prices and then using deep discount sales to attract customers, he initiated a new “fair and square every day” pricing strategy. By offering good prices every day he attempted to change customer bahavior and dissuade them from waiting for markdowns. Further, by minimizing sales, promotions, and coupons, Ron Johnson eliminated the thrill of pursuing markdowns, a key characteristic of J.C. Penney’s conventional customer. When the pricing strategy flopped, Ron Johnson reinstated sales and coupons, and even brought back “fake prices.” The successive changes confused employees and customers. Additionally, J.C. Penney stopped carrying some traditional brands that many of its long-time customers had favored and injected trendy brands to appeal to younger customers. Ron Johnson’s team created exciting marketing and advertising that was seen as too edgy and further confused traditional customers.

Lesson 2: Don’t be so hubristic as to wager big on hunches without prototyping

At Apple, Steve Jobs frequently shunned extensive consumer research because he had the exceptional genius to introduce the right products, with the right features, at the right time. Drawing from his success at the helm of Apple stores, Ron Johnson was perhaps overconfident that he had all the right answers and could therefore forego the crucial feedback from employees and customers before embarking to “revolutionize retailing” by “teaching people how to shop on their terms” and “fundamentally disrupting the traditional retailing paradigm.”

The gravest error Ron Johnson made at J.C. Penney was not testing his new pricing strategy in a handful of stores. According to this WSJ article, when a colleague proposed a limited store-test of the new pricing strategy, Johnson allegedly responded, “We didn’t test at Apple.”

Ron Johnson's Debacle at J.C. Penney Clearly, what Ron Johnson thought of value was not what its customers saw as value. As a result, J.C. Penney overlooked the reality that, for its customers, pursuing discounted goods on sale was part of the fun of shopping at J.C. Penney. Ron Johnson set about to tear down an old business model before he had switched over to a new business model without prototyping.

Ron Johnson possibly had a compelling out-of-the-box vision for J.C. Penney. However, he did not stay closely connected to J.C. Penney’s customers and employees before the launch of a radical strategic change. It is challenging to be an effective leader when customers and employees don’t understand and buy major changes.

Incremental improvements to J.C. Penney’s merchandising strategy through extensive prototyping and measured makeover could have provided the opportunity to learn through trialing and encouraged ownership of the strategy by employees, especially those in customer-facing roles.

Lesson 3: Beware of the “Halo Bias” in rating leaders

Halo Bias We tend to attribute a manager/leader’s success to his apparent genius and we overlook the role of the context (team, product, industry, timing, and luck) in his success. Thus, we come to expect him to have the same success in a different context. We anticipate that the very tactics and devices that proved successful in the past would work for him in the new context. (See my earlier article on the halo and horns biases in rating people.)

Ron Johnson certainly proved his retailing genius by first creating Target’s hip-yet-inexpensive brand image and then, for ten years, by leading Apple’s highly lucrative retail stores where he most famously introduced the Genius Bar concept. Nevertheless, his experience with selling premium-priced products at full price all the time with no promotions at the Apple stores did not translate well to J.C. Penney’s undifferentiated merchandise and its customer base of bargain hunters.

In June 2011, J.C. Penney stock spiked by 17.5% when the company announced Ron Johnson’s appointment as CEO. Wall Street saw in him a proven leader with the silver bullet. Investors got overly optimistic that he would remake the embattled retailer and overlooked the fact that J.C. Penney lacked the brand image of Apple and its most-sought-after products. Alas, J.C. Penney stock slid by over 50% during Ron Johnson’s 17-month tenure. The golden boy of retail never hit his stride.

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