Why JCPenney’s CEO thinks his turnaround plan will be the one that finally works: ‘It’s about fixing the fundamentals’

·7 min read
Photograph by Nancy Newberry for Fortune

JCPenney CEO Marc Rosen has no intention of adding to the retailer's 15-year list of failed turnaround attempts anchored in bold, flashy moves. In the late 2000s, it tried to be fashion-forward. That bombed. Then in 2012, the department store ditched the coupons it was famous for to focus on higher-end brands, confusing shoppers and dropping sales by 25%, or $4 billion, in the first year. Some years later, JCPenney reentered the big-ticket home appliance category—and whiffed that too. For years, trying everything and anything was the retailer's modus operandi.

But these days, Rosen, named CEO in October 2021—17 months after JCPenney filed for bankruptcy protection—is focused on retail 101. It's the essential but less sexy basics like having merchandise in stock and in season, selling products customers want, and operating a website that meets shopper expectations. Rosen says his strategy boils down to winning more business from existing customers and zeroing in on shoppers of color, his core customers, rather than chasing new, younger customers who never became loyal shoppers under earlier reinvention attempts.

"In the past, you've seen the company chase shiny objects and try to come out with a 'big bang' solution," he tells Fortune. "This time, we're saying we've got to fix the foundation."

It helps that JCPenney is now a privately held company owned by a group led by mall operator Simon Property Group. It doesn't have to worry about dazzling Wall Street analysts every quarter with a plan that will miraculously and instantly fix the business. That's even more crucial at a time when rivals like Kohl's, Macy's, and even Target are also struggling to get shoppers to buy the clothing and home goods that are JCPenney's main product categories. The department store chain has also benefitted from its bankruptcy, which helped it close many weak stores, leaving behind about 665 from a peak of 1,100 a decade ago. (Simon Property Group's CEO David Simon recently told investors that JCPenney is "unbelievably profitable.")

In the late 1970s, JCPenney was second only to Sears as the country's largest retailer. It's now No. 48, just short of $9 billion in sales in 2022, according to consulting firm Kantar. That's half its 2010 sales. But while it retools away from Wall Street's klieg lights, JCPenney might stand a better chance of finally turning things around under Rosen's head-down, sleeves-up leadership style.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: Let's start with an existential question. With all the choices consumers have and all the Sturm und Drang around Penney in the last decade, why do customers even need you?

Before deciding to join, I did not only financial due diligence but brand due diligence. Consumers have a deep, emotional connection to Penney, whether they got their first credit card with us or bought their daughter's first communion dress. I found people who would say, 'I have these emotional connections, but I haven't been there for a while.' And that's on us.

But what does J.C. Penney offer customers that they can't find at Target, Old Navy, or Walmart?

If you take fashion and home goods, the case for us is we have a mix of brands, whether it's Levi's, Hanes, Cuisinart, or our private label brands, and we can offer them at good prices in a place where you can also shop for beauty, and go to a salon and get your hair done. At some other retailers, you could buy a dress and put it in your cart with your milk and eggs, but that's not the kind of moment our customers want as a shopping experience.

Penney announced countless turnaround plans in the 2010s to stanch its decline, yet sales and store count kept falling. Why should anyone believe in this new turnaround plan? 

Everything is different. It starts with having one of the cleanest balance sheets in the industry right now. We have an ownership that is taking a long-term view of the business. In the past, you've seen the company chase shiny objects and try to devise a 'big bang' solution. This time, we're saying we've got to fix the foundation.

Concretely, what does that entail?

In a lot of the previous turnaround attempts, it was about trying to win a different customer. This time, it's not about going and getting many new customers. We have 50 million customers who love the brand, so it's about getting them to shop more with us. It's about giving relevance and showing them that we have the products they want, be it great sheets and towels, lab-grown engagement jewelry, etc. It's about addressing our store experience and getting the right products. We've now seen an uptick in the frequency of our customers' visits for the first time in five years. So it's about fixing the fundamentals.

But don't you need to win new customers, given that current shoppers will eventually age out?

I'm not saying we don't want to acquire new customers. We do, and we will. I'm just saying our primary focus will be driving frequency among our existing customer base, which is more addressable in the short term.

You've lost many customers with all the strategy shifts, the Chapter 11 filing, and the success of rivals like Target and Ulta. How do you get shoppers to give you a second chance?

As we reinvigorate the brand, we must clarify for our customers what the reason is for coming to JCPenney. They come for our great brands and the fashion they can't find at other places at an incredible value, but we need to offer that consistently. Our customers didn't stop coming to us, but they came to us less frequently because other retailers were meeting their needs.

During its decade of turbulence, Penney had to deal with various stakeholders looking at everything it did with a magnifying glass. You're now privately owned. How does that help?

Being private has many advantages, especially in a macroeconomic environment like this. We look at investments in a very different way because we can take a long-term perspective. We can invest significantly in our digital shopping experience, supply chain, and stores. As a public company, we'd have to spread that over a long time because we'd have to protect the consistency of earnings.

After 15 years of operating shops within JCPenney's large stores, Sephora decamped to Kohl's last year, forcing you to start a beauty business almost from scratch. What can you offer Penney shoppers that could replace Sephora?

JCPenney Beauty is in about 400 of our stores now and will be in 600. We've also formed a partnership with Thirteen Lune (an online retailer focused on beauty products by and for people of color) that has allowed us to bring many Black and brown founder-led companies developing products for Black and brown consumers.

Five years from now, is JCPenney a bigger company or plodding along?

In total, I think you will look at us and see a larger overall business. As for the store count, you'll probably see a number not dramatically different than where we are today. But I think we will be doing more sales volume out of those stores by driving shopping frequency and doing more online through a better site experience. You're going to see a bigger JCPenney.

Get to know Rosen:

  • During his years at Walmart in the early 2000s, Rosen and his wife, Betsy, founded a synagogue in the company's headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

  • He played classical piano competitively through his high school years.

  • Before landing the Penney job, Rosen spent seven years at Levi Strauss building its e-commerce.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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