business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

"Kate's Take" is brought to you by Wholesome Sweeteners, Making The World a Sweeter Place.

One of the real advantages that social media offers marketers is the ability to listen to shoppers.  Sure, there also is the opportunity to reply to what people are saying and even to initiate conversations about products, services or even larger issues.

But the ability to listen to what people are saying, unvarnished and in real time, is enormous.

To make it work and, indeed, to seem authentic, you have to actually be interested in what other people are saying.

By that standard, JC Penney continues to fail the test. The struggling retailer’s comeback bid took a new turn this week. It went from an apologetic “we’re listening” campaign two weeks ago to sudden gratitude.

“They’re two simple words. Thank you. We truly appreciate all of our fans” the company shouted out on Facebook, Twitter and in a new TV and YouTube commercial (as reported here on MNB yesterday).

Sorry, JCP, but I think it’s a little too soon to break out the celebratory champagne, even amid reports about store traffic increasing. After all, you are digging out of a financial sinkhole with a teaspoon. And there’s that pesky issue of a generational divide that got you in this fix.

JC Penney booted former CEO Ron Johnson last month when it was clear his radical approach to revitalize JC Penney (rebranded as "jcp") was failing. It took to social media and the airwaves to admit it erred in eliminating coupons and popular brands and asked shoppers to share their opinions and come back to the store.

Share they did.

One #jcpListens post on its Facebook page drew a whopping 19,000-plus comments and 56,000 “likes.” The JCP social media team was in overdrive responding to comments from traditional customers who missed their coupons and sales and did not buy into Johnson’s “fair and square” pricing and hipper clothes.

These posts were typical:

• “Before you destroy a long-time generational store, you need to put it BACK where it was!”

• “Our marriage can work if you bring back the coupons.”

To its credit, JCP did move quickly in bringing back its traditional St. John’s Bay sportswear for women. A company spokeswoman told MNB “what customers missed most are the promotions.”

But here’s the deal – middle-aged customers buying $14.99 cotton T-shirts are not going to save this chain. Nor will sending mail-order catalogs as some requested.

Younger buyers embraced the pricing and product changes, and said so on Facebook:

Wrote one: “I loved the new JCP. And I was your new target market. You finally brought in youthful clothes that fit and I never had to remember to bring in a coupon.”

And another: “Coupons are for old people.”

In my mind, this response nailed it: “Your recently-fired CEO was going in the right direction, but you all can't reinvent the wheel every 18 months and expect overnight turnaround. My 20 something (clotheshorse) daughter was just saying that you had some great things at great prices, and then you trashed the concept. As long as you are pandering to long-time loyal customers (that is, people in their ‘70s) you don't have a prayer.”

And there you have it. JC Penney was broken, Ron Johnson attempted a miracle comeback, stumbled and fell short, and now the old management is back to restore the old store. But to what?

The travails of JC Penney will be long discussed, probably will be the subject of countless case studies and books, and will continue to offer retailers cautionary lessons about the most effective and efficient ways for a giant retailer to change direction.

But for the moment, the adventure is far from over.  JC Penney has much work to do to repair relationships with shoppers, figure out what customers really want as opposed to what they say they want, and plot both strategies and tactics that will make it a relevant 21st century retailer.

The best first step, if you ask me?

Listen.  Really.

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