By Jamie Anderson, Director, Global Solution Marketing, Web Channel & eCommerce Solutions, SAP
“I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is one of my favorite Beach Boys tracks (from the classic Pet Sounds album), and possibly one of the most instantly misunderstood by people who hear the chorus but fail to understand the surrounding lyrical context.
If you only hear the chorus, it’s easy to sit back and allow the waves and images of nostalgia to wash over you thinking, “Wow! Wasn’t life simpler then? I can’t keep up with the pace of this new digital world!”
In reality, singer Brian Wilson was lamenting the fact that he felt isolated as a consequence of being so ahead of his time. This song heralded the first use of an Electro-Theremin on a rock record, later credited as the basis for Robert Moog’s eponymous synthesizer. But innovations don’t always lead to commercial success (as Brian himself would later discover), particularly when the context of what you are doing is seemingly out of synch with (or perhaps misunderstood by) your intended audience.
I read a recent Harvard Business Review blog about the storm emerging from JC Penney’s less than illustrious Q1 trading figures ($163M Q1 2012 loss compared to $64M profit in Q1 of the previous year). It would appear the figures are being directly attributed to their “Fair and Square Everyday Low Pricing Strategy” where they no longer advertise “sale” pricing because, to the new JC Penney at least, every day is a sale with everyday low pricing.
On the surface it sounds great, and what customer would fail to appreciate the value of everyday low prices, right? Wrong. They misread the context on how they are viewed as a retailer.
The rationale from which they developed this campaign was based on their own (inside-out based) interpretation of a “problem” to which most customers just couldn’t relate. JC Penney said their customers are addicted to coupons, as if they were “drugs” and wanted to rid them of this terrible affliction.
Unfortunately, not many JC Penney customers are actually keen on going cold turkey with coupon use. With store traffic dropping by 10% over the same period, customers are voting with their feet and accepting the available “substitutes” offered by JC Penney’s rivals to feed their Sale/Coupon cravings.
JC Penney’s aspirations are well-intended but to the humble customer what does JC Penney represent? JC Penney is a multi-brand retail chain that sells other people’s products through their store network and online, and uses coupons and sales to attract their customer’s attention and drive traffic.
That’s what mid-range retailers like JC Penney do, that’s the environment within which they operate, and that, crucially, is what the customer understands. They must craft their own unique customer experience within these parameters.
It will be interesting to watch JC Penney’s re-invention under the stewardship of former Apple Store guru Ron Johnson as he focuses this strategy around a new range of concept stores.
My only concern here is that with the reduction in customer footfall at stores will the strategy actually be afforded the necessary time to bear fruit? Couple that with the fact that, unlike Apple, JC Penney does not manufacture the product they stock or control the wider Retail environment for their goods, so this approach also may also be out of synch with their core market dynamics.
Recent commentary from their ‘shocked’ former CEO, Allen Questron, hitting the news wires certainly won’t help. Nor will recent analysis on the Q2 results from Forbes which leads me to wonder if Ron and JC Penney ’s vision for the future will find them isolated and “ahead of their time” just like Brian Wilson did before them.
Brian Wilson was cited as a genius for his work on Pet Sounds as the Beach Boys grew with their core audience into the age of psychedelia – unfortunately they weren’t ready to embrace his next musical innovation, SMiLE, which took nearly 40 years to be fully realized and appreciated.
With a rapidly evolving and competitive retail landscape being defined by technical innovation and true omni-channel presence, somehow I don’t see JC Penney being afforded the same amount of time to become fully appreciated.