- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) - Everyone in the retail world wants to see if Ron Johnson can work his magic a third time.

For 15 years, he helped shape Target’s cheap chic image. Then, he spent about a decade changing the way Americans shop for electronic gadgets at Apple.

Now, Johnson faces perhaps his biggest challenge yet as CEO of J.C. Penney: dust off one of the dowdiest brands in retailing to make it cool again. To do that, he’s borrowing from Apple’s uber-successful playbook.

During an hour-long interview in which he talked about how he planned to transform Penney, the 52-year-old mentioned Apple 19 times. Like he did at Apple, the 30-year retail industry veteran says he plans to change the shopping experience, shun heavy discounting and sell services along with products.

In an industry where the bargain is king, what’s raising the most eyebrows is his plan to do away with the 590 sales Penney had last year. Johnson says the sales turn off customers who must play a waiting game to get deals. So, instead Penney will offer everyday pricing and much fewer sales.

The retailer also is shaking up its stores, adding areas in the middle of each location that will offer services much like the popular Apple Genius Bars that Johnson created. Penney is tight-lipped about what services will be offered, some industry watchers say food demonstrations or haircuts could be among them. The rest of the store will be divided into 100 specialty shops that will replace endless racks of clothes.

Despite his impressive resume and innovative ideas, overhauling Penney won’t be easy. Department stores, as a whole, have lost market share to specialty retailers like H&M and Zara whose stores have “wow” factor. The group’s market share in clothing and other areas fell to 31 percent last year from 57 percent in 1992.

And Penney, in particular, has struggled. The retailer’s sales have slipped as its core middle-class customers have been among the hardest hit by the economic downturn, it has failed to attract younger customers with its stodgy image and its stores increasingly look uninviting compared to competitors.

Here are some excerpts from the interview at Penney’s Plano, Texas, headquarters, in which Johnson talked about everything from the challenges Penney faces to what stores he shops at:

Q. Why Penney?

A. I chose J.C. Penney because I think it’s the single biggest opportunity in American retailing. Inherently, department stores have significant advantages compared to all other retailers. Yet, our productivity is at the low end, and that just doesn’t make sense.

Q. What was your first impression of Penney?

A. I would describe J.C. Penney as one of a handful of great American brands that seemed like it was dormant, that had been a great part of the fabric of America for almost a century but it just wasn’t modern. It wasn’t top of mind. Everybody can tell a story about their mom or their grandma or the old catalog days. But they don’t have modern stories. Because we haven’t been creative enough so we have to rethink everything.

Q. Who are the chain’s competitors?

A. Our number one competitor is ourselves and our way of thinking, which is informed by decades of experience. It’s not another store; it’s not another format like the Internet. Our competition is ourselves and our best friend is our imagination.

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