New J.C. Penney 'Experience' Will Take Years To Instill

Jan.25.12 | About: J.C. Penney (JCP)

The biggest news in retailing is former Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) Store retail head Ron Johnson's effort to revive J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP), one of America's last great anchor stores.

The failure of old "anchors," like Sears and Macy's, to generate excitement among shoppers, has caused enormous changes in American behavior and the urban landscape. Or vice-versa.

Shopping is no longer a leisure activity. The idea of spending a day going from store-to-store, stopping now and then for coffee or tea, and then coming home, bags in hand, sounds quite 20th century. It has gone from being a mass-market to an up-market activity, and you can see the result in real estate patterns. The value in most mall-area real estate is now in the "out-parcels," stand-alone stores that specialize in electronics or bargain merchandise.

It's true in my family. My wife hates to shop, and I don't shop - I buy. I have a list; I've usually researched major purchases; I want to get in-and-out, back home, as quickly as possible.

This is what Ron Johnson was hired to change. But can he, and should he?

Johnson helped make Apple stores as valuable as the White House - per square foot. His deal to jump to Penney is more than two times better than Prince Fielder's with the Tigers - $51.5 million so far (although Fielder's nine-year deal is guaranteed.)

Johnson's charge is to make going to a Penney's store an event - like going to an Apple store. His strategy is just starting to come into focus - prices marked to the dollar, no clearance sales, monthly sales "events" and an experience more like Nordstrom's (NYSE:JWN).

I don't buy that. I still want to buy more than I want to shop. I go to an Apple store to buy, not to shop. So where is my personal shopper? Seriously, can Johnson give me an app for that?

New CTO Kristen Blum (another new hire from Apple) is not going to be focused on that. Blum's time at Apple was spent building supply chain solutions supporting Apple retail. Fixing Penney's logistics is important, but it's not sexy - it's a job that won't move the needle and the stock until it's done.

From a corporate standpoint, Johnson has not handled things well at all. Instead of talking about the new strategy, analysts are focused on how it fired thousands of workers and a lawsuit fired against the Martha Stewart brand, which Johnson poached from Macy's. That only illustrates the weakness of Penney's own brand.

As a result, JCP is now a bargain. Morgan Stanley has it listed as underweight. If you grabbed some JCP right after Johnson was hired on June 14, you're underwater. My own view is that analysts are going to remain disappointed for some time, at least until Blum's impact on logistics and margins is felt, and that JCP is falling before it can rise. It even took Steve Jobs four years to remake Apple before sales and earnings began accelerating with the 2001 launch of the iPod.

Even if you believe Ron Johnson can turn JCP around, it's not going to happen all at once. It's a job that will take years, not months. And there is plenty of time to get into the stock. Today is not the most important day in retail for 25 years. That will be the day we wake up and see that, once again, J.C. Penney is a big-time brand.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.