Store Wars: Hats Off to Penney’s – Yes, JCPenney

Bridget Johns
Bridget Johns
Chief Marketing Officer, Head of Growth Strategies

JCPenney's new lab store is worth a visit and could be a model for future success, if time is on their side.

Retail is a funny business. There are so many factors that separate the winners from the losers, and in the current climate I am often surprised by who gets it right and who gets it wrong. There have been endless writings on the demise of Sears, what Toys R Us could have done differently, how Macy’s and WalMart are trying to reinvent themselves, the reasons Nordstrom decided to invest in Manhattan now, and on and on. And of course, there has been a tremendous amount of speculation on why JCPenney is in the precarious position of today – Ron Johnson, market forces, Amazon, etc. have all been blamed and many believe there is not a path for this storied retailer to recover. Having recently visited the renovated lab store in Hurst, TX, I have hope.

I visit a lot of innovation stores. RetailNext is in the business of delivering data that helps retailers measure and optimize their physical stores and innovation projects are a core pillar of our success. I’ve seen a few exciting, well executed innovation stores from brands you’d expect (and am excited for a few more that will open in time for the holidays). But sadly, I’ve seen too many investments that are nothing more than some new fixtures and a splash of paint, I’ve seen innovation stores that have great ideas that fall flat, and I’ve seen stores where huge investments in customer facing technologies lack purpose or fail short on engaging, surprising and delighting the customer. And I usually have a good sense of where a brand or retailer will land before I walk into one of these new concept/innovation/store of the future stores. JCPenney calls their store a Lab. Whatever the name, I was surprised. Very surprised.

Driving up to the store, I was struck by the retro façade. At RetailNext we often use two photos to illustrate how little has changed in physical retail, particularly department stores. We have one photo of a department store of today and one of 30 years ago illustrating the lack of change. The façade made me smile, thinking it was referencing the Penney’s of a different (retail) time. But the real excitement started the moment I walked into the store. The store felt good. Really good. Big hug kind of good. It was bright and inviting and it looked like it was ready for business. We have a few retail trends we regularly talk about at RetailNext.  Looking at the store through that lens, this is what I saw:

  1.     There are no longer “channels” in retail.
    Stores support digital engagement and digital engagement drives traffic to stores. Simple as that. This store has the right focus on the shopper, with the best tools for cross-platform engagement. BOPIS is centrally located, not hidden in a dark corner, the fitting rooms have the latest endless aisle technologies, and the team is empowered to ship any out of stock items straight to your home. The store gets high marks for never once making me think “this would be easier online”.

  2.     In store experience is your best marketing.
    In full disclosure, I do not often shop at JCPenney. But this store made me wish there was a Penney’s location in my back yard (not to be confused with the JCPenney’s a few minutes from my home). There are a multitude of experiences in this store, and they all feel extremely thoughtful and relevant. There are some things you’d expect like a barber shop and a hair salon, a styling area and a kids zone branded “the clubhouse.” There is a coffee shop and a café. All of these service areas felt fresh and relevant and have just the right amount of redesign to, I think, appeal to existing customers and probably attract some new ones along the way. There is also a Dallas Cowboys fitness studio and endless areas throughout the store to build community – something shoppers are craving in today’s world. One associate walked through all of the education and demonstration opportunities in the store – cooking classes, kids programming, makeup and styling events – again, feeling thoughtful and relevant.

  3.     Technology should have a point.
    I’ve walked into Innovation-type stores and have been overwhelmed by the technology and in many cases, the overuse of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology. But, there has to be a point to the technology you are delivering. There are certainly some big technology investments in this store (like the massive video wall in the clubhouse), but it does not feel like it’s a store built by the technology team. The digital enablement is again, thoughtful and relevant and everything has a purpose. One can hope JCPenney is as thoughtful with its investments in the unseen technologies (like analytics, inventory management, and CRM/Marketing).

It’s hard to surprise me in a physical store, I’ve seen a lot of them.  But this was fun. Kudos to Jill Soltau and her team for bringing this vision to life. With a renewed focus on the consumer executed at this level, I’m excited to see what the future holds…if there is time.

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