Feeling the Buzz at J.C. Penney

Feeling the Buzz at J.C. Penney

It all started when I needed to replace a bath mat. I shopped around online and found the perfect one to be delivered at a store I had not visited in years…JCPenney at Barton Springs Mall in Austin, Texas.

Opting to pick up in store, the moment I opened the door on Saturday morning I felt that rarified “business buzz.” On my right, families were gathering to take portraits. On my left, the hair salon was full of folks chatting it up with their stylists. And just past the hair salon to my amazement I spied a fully stocked Sephora, a “store within a store.”

Then, another rarity happened. A floor manager escorted me to the counter that had my merchandise and that’s when she spilled the beans: “Our company has finally gotten it right. Our new female CEO is a ‘Merchant’ and that’s making all the difference.”

As we parted, she muttered something about men and appliances and wished me a good day.

In 2018, JCPenney’s board landed Jill Soltau as the next CEO, and she seems to check all the boxes for what the company needs right now.

It seems one of the retailer’s biggest problems has been that customers have not liked the merchandise. Poor performance in this area made former “Turn-around” CEO Marvin Ellison’s decision to eliminate the chief merchant role in late 2017 look particularly puzzling.

But here’s the good news: Prior to joining JCPenney, Soltau was the president and CEO of crafts retailer Joann Stores. Yet, the vast majority of her three decades of experience in retail has been at mid-price department-store chains similar to JCPenney.

Before taking the helm at Joann Stores, Soltau was a top executive at Shopko, a regional chain of smaller department stores. She served as president for her last two years there, following four years as the company’s chief merchant.

Soltau’s experience as a chief merchant and in other high-level merchandising roles means she is well schooled in the skills to fix JCPenney’s business. And she likely has the right network to bring in capable deputies to resurrect this iconic brand.

As any good leader does, she isn’t shying away from the tasks at hand. She knows there are no shortcuts to fixing the many pressing issues at JCPenney’s. There is an overabundance of unsold inventory that needs to be moved. The pricing needs to be clearer and more consistent. In short, the very fundamentals of retail need to be re-established throughout the organization.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Soltau has suggested innovative ideas. For example, it was announced recently that the firm will begin testing Yoga studios inside stores. This could make JCPenney a regular destination for this popular practice. (And think of the yoga wear the department store could sell!)

They have also become a partner with the popular online consignment site ThredUP selling JCPenney handbags.

Lots of leadership lessons here, but chief among them is this: When you take on a challenge like this, don’t look back, look forward. Keep your finger on the pulse on what customers, associates and channel partners want and need. Then, execute. And do it bravely while still being circumspect about how things are going.

It will be interesting to see where Ms. Soltau takes JCPenney, but I can tell you that if my visit was any indication they are off to a great start.

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