JC Brigadoon

Michael-Graves-Design-at-jcp3-photo-credit-jcp1Run, do not walk, to the nearest JC Penney store and go see the new home store. It is perhaps the best merchandised, most beautifully displayed and freshest home furnishings department retailing has seen since the first Macy’s Cellar in San Francisco more than 30 years ago.

And like the mythical Scottish town Brigadoon that appears suddenly and then disappeared not to be seen again for decades, the lifespan of this Penney home department will be short…very short. You see, Ron Johnson delivered exactly what he promised. The home area is breathtaking and unlike virtually anything else in any other store in the country.

Unfortunately, he also delivered exactly what his critics promised. The home re-do will likely be a financial disaster, with shockingly horrible sales and profitability, even in the context of the store’s performance over the past 18 months.

And before you can say fourth quarter, it will all be gone. Mike Ullman will have virtually obliterated Johnson’s vision for home, bringing in more pedestrian merchandise, as many fixtures as he can drag in from the scrap heap, and enough big sale signs to embarrass a Jamesway pensioner. But right now it’s real and it’s spectacular.

Texas Toasted

A recent visit to the Stonebriar Mall store near Penney corporate headquarters in Plano, Texas, revealed Johnson’s home strategy in all its glory. Having seen the same store 90 days before, the transformation was absolutely remarkable.

Cross-merchandised Jonathan Adler Happy Chic areas bracketed the main entrance to the department, with bright, clever signage and smart fixturing, mixing bed and bath with tableware and accessories like lamps and lighting.

Just to the side was a Martha Stewart Celebrations paper and party goods area, set for July 4th, a vision in red, white and blue.

Once inside the department, a shopper was greeted with a test kitchen area, complete with looped videos and worktables for demonstrators and participants. Just off the kitchen was an offering of Martha Pantry food, including pasta, spices, marinades and even peanut butter and jelly. The packaging was as sophisticated as anything at an Apple store. To the right was an outstanding tabletop and housewares area, with mannequins and eye-catching graphics. Sophie Conran tabletop was nicely set on low tables along the main drive aisle and the feeling of openness and spaciousness was in stark contrast to what you would see at the other end of the mall at Macy’s or Dillard’s.

Turn around and walk to the soft home area, again set with low fixtures and neon signage, calling attention to themes like Sleep and Dream.

Much of the bed and bath area was branded Everyday, Ron-speak for the Martha-developed product he wasn’t allowed to sell under her name pending the outcome of the legal tug-of-war with Macy’s. Again, the packaging, the colors and the patterns would look every bit at home at Crate and Barrel or Target on its best day as it did on the Penney floor.

All in all, it was an amazing pleasure to shop. Too bad, I was one of only three people doing so.

The Mike Makeover

And that’s where Mike Ullman comes back into the picture because as brilliant as the department looks, it will no doubt be a train wreck on the bottom line. If Johnson made many mistakes, hardly anybody – including Johnson himself – will argue that his biggest one was trying to do too much too quickly. The shopper who would love this new Penney home department and would spend money there is nowhere near the store. She hadn’t stepped foot there in years. And the customers who were in the store would look at most of this and just shake their heads wondering if they had stumbled into a different time dimension.

Even if they could get the right shopper into the store, she would clean out the place in a weekend. Inventory levels across the entire department seemed to be on NutriSlim. I watched as the salesperson had to take the display item from the shelf to complete the sale – of a pair of tumblers.

Nor were all the systems exactly in place to do business. An inquiry to find the price on an item in housewares stymied the salesperson who couldn’t even find it on her computer system much less find the price. No matter, there was no back-up inventory at all on this item.

And while that spacious layout and floor plan was a delight, it has to be a sales-per-square-foot productivity nightmare. With main aisles wide enough to drive a UPS truck through and low tables incapable of holding more than just a few pieces of any given SKU, this is not a store designed to do Saturday business. It’s doubtful it could handle a rainy Tuesday.

Johnson kept saying, wait until you see what we’re working on, it’s going to be amazing. And he was right – it is amazing. But Ullman has to find a way to return Penney to profitability – and return customers to the store and this home department ain’t going to do it. So, before it fades away into the retailing mist, get yourself to Penney’s. We’ll not ever see its likes again.

Warren Shoulberg is editorial director of several home furnishings business publications. He loved the new Penney home store so much that he tried to buy something there…but they were out of stock on it.

Warren Shoulberg About Warren Shoulberg

Warren Shoulberg is editorial director of several home furnishings magazines for Sandow Media and has been reporting on the home business for a long time. He is currently working on his next book, Stupid Business.