Few, if any, retailing observers can question the vision and talent that have made Ron Johnson one of the most influential and accomplished merchants of the past two decades.
Johnson wrote the design-for-the-masses playbook for housewares at Target, and then he rewrote the book on retailing as captive theater at Apple.
But as Johnson moves to the helm of JC Penney from his groundbreaking post as architect, builder and caretaker of the Apple Store phenomenon, many might wonder how his hardlines-honed philosophy will translate to an apparel-heavy promotional department store brand in a state of constant compromise to keep its traditional mid-tier customer base satisfied while cultivating enough vogue to entice and contain a new generation.
Taking A Stance
It’s nearly impossible for retailers to endure muddled identities in today’s unforgiving marketplace. Johnson has never shied away from taking a stance when it comes to clarifying a retailer’s image, even if it meant risks that didn’t always register at checkout.
Johnson’s Michael Graves Design initiative in housewares for Target had an inconsistent sales record over the years. But in its daring and commitment it was an unabashed flag bearer for the discounter’s storewide “shabby chic” makeover while inspiring retailers across the board.
All Johnson did at Apple was pioneer one of the most pulsating, captivating, interactive store concepts, steering it in 10 years to more than 300 locations that generated sales of $3.19 billion in the quarter ended in March.
It makes one wonder why Johnson would leave a presumably comfy senior post at one of the hottest, hippest companies for the markedly less-edgy, vulnerable mid-market department store world.
Johnson wouldn’t risk tarnishing his retailing legacy— and his personal $50 million investment in JC Penney stock— if he didn’t already have what he believes is a surefire game plan for reinventing the brand.
As revolutionary as Johnson’s results are, though, his retailing methodology is more fundamental than it is radical.
In a presentation for Bodum at the 2003 Gourmet Show, Johnson shared his principles behind the Apple Store rollout:
• “Find the highest-traffic, most expensive retail locations; not the cheapest real estate. The best real estate delivers the traffic.”
• “Invest in store design… Design the store not around selling product, but around the desired customer experience.”
• “Create merchandising presentations that invite hands-on interaction.”
• “Edit, edit, edit. It’s not about how many SKUs you carry; it’s what you carry and what you tell them about it that gives customers the perception that you are a leader in that product.”
• “[Hire] passionate people… because they love [your]brand and culture.”
• “Market through special events, not sales.”
“Customers are totally bored with what they’ve seen before,” Johnson said at the Bodum event. “You have to identify the fundamentals that inhibit growth. You have to change mindsets, and design stores around that goal. Think big. Think different. Utilize outside help. And keep asking, ‘What’s next?”
Such thinking applies to all retailing, whether you’re selling funky kettles, high-end computers, basic cookware or boot-cut jeans. Some might think JC Penney isn’t an ideal canvas for the type of cutting-edge merchandising on Johnson’s résumé. What truly is cutting-edge about Johnson, however, is not just his vision, but also his total commitment to it.
Expect Johnson to adapt his philosophy to JC Penney’s target market. Then we’ll see if the core of his ideas on retail transformation from one channel to the next really is apples to apples.