NEW YORK — There won’t be an easy fix for J.C. Penney – if it can be fixed at all.
As Mike Ullman takes the reins again less than two years after his departure, he faces a Herculean task to undo the mess left by CEO Ron Johnson, who was ousted Monday. With the department store retailer in the middle of a disastrous overhaul that has driven away shoppers, the 66-year-old Ullman has to quickly figure out what parts of Johnson’s legacy to keep and what to trash.
The overarching question is whether the century-old company can be saved at all. Very few retailers have recovered from a 25 percent sales drop in a single year, like that suffered by Penney under Johnson’s watch. On Tuesday, the retailer’s stock price dropped more than 12 percent to a 12-year-low of $13.93 as investors’ worries escalated about Penney’s future.
“Ullman can’t go back to the old ways, but he can’t do what Ron Johnson did,” said Ron Friedman, head of the retail and consumer products group at Marcum LLP, a national accounting and consulting firm. “I think there will be a combination of the two. But he has to make some quick moves.”
Apparently, the company’s board felt Ullman, who served as Penney’s CEO for seven years and is known for strong relationships with suppliers and calm, steady execution, would be the best choice right now to secure the company’s future. But it could take Ullman 18 months to stabilize the business, said Burt Flickinger III, president of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group. He gives the chain a 50-50 chance to survive.
“The odds are declining every day,” said Flickinger, noting that rivals like Macy’s are taking away market share. “Competitors see blood in the water.”
Johnson, the mastermind behind Apple Inc.’s successful retail stores, lasted just 17 months. His rapid-fire changes included getting rid of coupons and most discounts in favor of everyday low prices, bringing in new brands and remaking its outdated stores. Johnson’s goal was to reinvent the stodgy retailer into a mini-mall of hip specialty shops.
Instead, Penney’s loyal shoppers went in search of deals elsewhere, and the chain didn’t attract the younger and more affluent shoppers that Johnson coveted.
Now the 1,100-store chain is burning through cash. In the past year, the company lost nearly a billion dollars and saw its revenue tumble by nearly $4.3 billion to $12.98 billion. Customer traffic dropped 13 percent. Steep sales declines have continued, say analysts, even though Johnson added back some sales events and coupons early this year.
Some speculate that Ullman may ditch the everyday price strategy and instead ramp up the return to discounting and coupons to get shoppers back in the stores. But that will be expensive. There are concerns about Ullman, too. Penney struggled during his first regime, though the company was still profitable. Ullman brought in Penney’s first mini-shops, including beauty company Sephora and exclusive names like MNG by Mango, a European clothing brand. But he didn’t do much to transform the store’s shopping experience or to attract new customers.
That showed up in the sales figures. During Ullman’s previous tenure, from December 2004 to October 2011, sales declined from $18.18 billion in 2004 to $17.6 billion in 2010, his last full year at the company.
Ultimately, Penney’s fate lies in once-loyal shoppers like Beth Williams, 39, who deserted the chain early last year.
Williams, a writer and mother of a 3-year-old from Plum, Pa., said she used to shop at Penney once a month for her family. But that changed when her local store got rid of coupons and sales events.
She also doesn’t like the new styles that she believes only target customers in their teens and 20s.
Williams says she would go back if Penney had more sales and brought back more traditional clothing like khaki shorts with forgiving fits.
“I would go back,” she said. “I miss it. That was my go-to store for a long time, and then it changed.”