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Can JCPenney Use Back-to-School To Reclaim Its Safety Zone?

As retailers fire up their back-to-school engines, heading toward that all-important fourth quarter, we can expect to hear more chatter about JCPenney. After all, it's about to face its most important test since it booted CEO Ron Johnson last spring. What's critical to the turnaround though isn't how well the struggling retailer has rewritten its mission. I think it's about how people will feelwhen they walk through Penney's doors.

Most of the big headlines -- Stodgy JCPenney hires Apple's retail genius; new guy makes too many changes; investors panic; new guy out; old guy in -- miss the all-important challenge of managing customers' emotional experiences in the store. The real reason Johnson failed at Penney is that he misread his customers’ emotional needs.

We have done extensive research about what makes shopping either rewarding or frustrating. We have found that a major challenge to a successful shopping trip is having the right emotional experience during the trip -- and then emerging from the trip feeling secure about the decisions one makes: Is the style right? Is it a good price? Have they shopped around, done enough homework? What kind of statement will it make about them?

Each retail brand carries a particular kind of emotional “promise” about the experience that shoppers will have in that store. In the case of Apple stores, Johnson knew exactly what shoppers want to feel when they walk into an Apple store:  Excitement and Adventure: a rush of feelings that include being “part of the Apple club,” and potentially feelings of mastery -- at making the smartest technology purchase decisions.

But that’s not the emotional experience people have come to expect at JCPenney. They expect it to be safe, conservative and predictable. They count on merchandise that is low-risk and well made, whether it’s bath towels, kids' shoes or men’s underwear. Stylish? A little, but maybe not in any cutting-edge way. They want to feel safe.

When that kind of emotional security is at the core of your brand, you better be careful before you charge in as Johnson did, throwing around words like “revolution” and “reinvention.”

It’s not that Penney shoppers can’t tolerate change. They want it and expect it, and that explains why the store had been losing customers even before it hired Johnson. They can recognize that Penney’s home goods departments have become dated, for example, in the same way they know it’s time to repaint their own garage.

Most critics have focused on Johnson doing away with Penney’s extensive sales as his primary mistake. And there’s no arguing that move triggered massive sales declines. But I don’t buy that consumers fled simply because they were deprived of the chance to save another 30 percent on last season’s bathing suits.

In doing away with all sales, Penney took a giant step out of character. Too much change -- made too quickly, I suspect, for a brand beloved for its predictability. For a 111-year-old brand like Penney, being mysterious isn’t a good idea. It transformed the store from an emotional safety zone into a retail crapshoot.

I suspect Penney could look to a conservative icon like Betty Crocker for clues about how to modernize. She has changed dramatically over the years. But through it all, she has remained conservative, trustworthy. She’s not flashy. She's somebody's mom. Penney's brings a lot of valuable equity to the retail environment by being a bit predictable -- remember shoppers' needs to feel secure about their purchases. 

Change Penney's hairstyle; change its clothing -- but don’t change its value system -- that's a big part of the reason people come to the store.

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