To Save Retail, Let It Die

by MR Magazine Staff

In 2011, in what has now become retail folklore, Ron Johnson, one of the brains behind the Apple Store, was hired to resuscitate the American department store chain JCPenney. At the time, I was asked to write an article for Advertising Age on whether Johnson would succeed or fail at this herculean task. My feeling at the time was that he would fail – not because he didn’t understand what needed to be done and certainly not because he lacked the creativity or knowledge to do it. He would fail, I believed, because customers, shareholders and ultimately the board of JCPenney wouldn’t have the stomach for what Johnson would ultimately have to do in order to revive the ailing retailer. What Johnson understood was that in order for the new JCPenney to be born, the old JCPenney had to die. In order to pump oxygen into an entirely new era of department store retailing, he would have to once and for all turn off the respirator that was keeping this old brand barely alive. And while we can quibble about Johnson’s approach to change management, (even he now admits he could have been gentler and more sensitive in his approach) the end result would have been the same. He failed because JCPenney felt more comfortable clinging to the corpse of their brand than working through a messy, uncertain and turbulent resurrection. It’s six years later and a similar malaise poisons the broader retail industry. Everyone is talking about the need for disruption, innovation and change, yet most stop well short of actually doing anything about it. Many retail brands talk about game-changing innovation but what we see are lukewarm iterations of existing concepts and old ideas. Retailers, it seems, lack the will or sense of urgency to effect significant and radical change. Read more at Business of Fashion.