It\’s a Good Thing: Martha + JC Penney

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\"\"It’s a good thing for Martha (to use one of her signature phrases).  It’s a good thing for JC Penney.  And it’s a good thing for Macy’s, which I’ll get to in a minute.  I’m writing, of course, about JC Penney’s acquisition of roughly a 16% stake in Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.,which means the retail giant will be installing Martha Stewart shops inside JCPenney stores beginning in February, 2013, following the expiration of Martha’s contract with Macy’s.

From a financial perspective, though the terms of Martha’s deal with Macy’s are not public, the $38.5 million buy-in from Penney’s was certainly not a bad thing for MSLO.  And for JCP to make that kind of investment, they must have an idea that’s it’s a really good strategic move.

First of all, from the few hints and statements that have been put forth by Penney’s new CEO, Ron Johnson, there is no way he plans on implementing a “tired formula,” as some have called it. Nor is Martha Stewart a tired brand, even though it’s bounced around for some time.  In fact, according to Robin Report home furnishings columnist Warren Shoulberg, who is also Editor-in-Chief of HFN, and one of the most knowledgeable experts covering the home sector, the MS brand continues to be one of the most underrated in the home business.  And, it did find a refreshing, well-positioned home at Macy’s where, according to most sources, it was doing quite well.

So, I don’t believe Martha would team up with JC Penney solely for financial reasons.  I believe Ron Johnson had conversations with Martha Stewart about the strategies that would fuel his vision, and in which her brand would play an exciting new role: “…I’m not here to improve, I’m here to transform…” As reported, Penney’s envisions bringing “a comprehensive retail experience featuring Martha Stewart products, know-how and advice.”  These will be Martha Stewart stores within Penney’s, but run by associates trained by the brand.  And, I can see this expanding into cooking classes and why not Martha’s restaurant, and other “Martha-isms,” a term of Mr. Shoulberg’s.  Home and garden apparel anyone?

By the way, the reason I believe Martha leaving Macy’s will also be “a good thing” for Macy’s, is that it provides the opportunity for them to pursue a brand or designer who is perhaps better aligned with their sought-after younger consumers.

Johnson has taken a lot of barbs from pundits, teasing about how he would translate the Apple “genius bar” in JC Penney.  In fact, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cartoon parodying such attempts and how they would look like within the store.  Well, Johnson may not have genius bars in Penney’s, but he might very well have Martha-trained associates as little geniuses on All Things Martha.

And, for those of you who think this was a weak opening act for his grand new vision for JCP and the department store business model, I believe it’s not even close to being the whole act. On January 25th we will likely hear about all three acts and how a newly transformed JC Penney is going to look.  And, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s going to talk about acquiring and/or leasing space to “star” brands or designers who, like Martha, will provide their own shops, maybe even run by their own brand “geniuses.”

So, imagine an enclosed “mini-mall” with all kinds of events, restaurants, and theatre: JC Penney as a destination for experiences, and within that destination, branded shops of all kinds.  Following the Sephora and MNG by Mango models, and soon to be Martha Stewart boutiques (and maybe restaurants?), they could lease space to brands such as Soma, which matches their core consumer sweet spot, and others.  Why not?  Those apparel specialty chain brands get hundreds of new locations for very little capital investment, and Penney’s traffic.   What a synergy.  And, then of course, why not roll out their own private branded specialty chains like Arizona and others?

I wonder if Apple would find some of their locations attractive for leasing space?

Are these ideas way out there?  Sure they are.  Would they be enormously costly to pull off?  Sure they would.  Would they take a long time to implement?  Of course.  Would they be “transformational?”




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