After he masterminded the launch of Apple’s wildly successful retail stores and Target’s hip reinvention, Ron Johnson was snapped up by JC Penney with the hope that he could reinvigorate the struggling retail outlet. But thus far, Johnson’s golden touch doesn’t seem to be working at Penney. Which begs a question about the cult of personality: Can any company’s success be attributed to just one person, or should it be considered in a broader context?

As the always astute James Surowiecki writes in a recent New Yorker piece on Johnson:

At Target and at Apple, Johnson was running with the wind, not against it. At Penney, he’s trying to do something very different: remake a company’s DNA. Penney’s board no doubt believed that Johnson’s record guaranteed that he’d succeed. But this perception probably reflects what psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error”—our tendency to ignore context and attribute an individual’s success or failure solely to inherent qualities. (People who watch one basketball player shoot free throws in a poorly lighted gym and another shoot in a well-lighted gym attribute the latter’s greater success to ability rather than to conditions.) Skill is important, but so is context: being great at selling cheap fashion or cool technology products doesn’t mean you’ll be great at turning around a middle-market retailer.
  • leslie

    Ron Johnson obviously doesn’t understand JC Penneys’ customer base. I was a loyal shopper for the last 20-25 years. The last two times I went there to shop, I could not find anything to buy! Though the King of Prussia, PA store was nicely remodeled and looks more upscale, it also looks sparse and uninviting. (I feel like it is trying to be something that it isn’t! And, it’s not like you’re going to trick Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus shoppers into coming to JCP!) I always loved Penneys’ standard items, such as St. Johns Bay 100% cotton
    turtle necks in solid colors, levis jeans, the sports wear—quality made
    cotton items, etc. Now the new “trendy” clothing looks cheap and synthetic, with busy patterns—not my style one bit. Nothing in housewares caught my eye. We made fun of the few lamps on display (on display as if museum pieces but cheap looking and not well made up close)… The store was empty of shoppers prior to Christmas! That was my go-to store. Not any more. Can you tell I’m disappointed?

    JC Penney while trying to appeal to a younger, hipper audience lost their core shoppers. JCP needs to look at their loyal shoppers, and they will easily see why their changes are not working.

  • nicole | teacups + B cups

    It will be interesting to see if using a brand name like Joe Fresh to attract new customers will actually work. The JCP customer base does not seem like one that cares about the name on the tag.

  • chichib

    Thank you Jocelyn for this article. Super insightful article for those interested in (or involved in) top-down corporate strategy; incremental service design/retail experience shifts; and the terrifying risks of alienating the current consumer-base and the herculean efforts required when trying to rebrand/perpetuate/cultivate MORE long-time loyal customers AND more profits.

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