In recent weeks, the saga over the fate of JCPenney has been all over the media and advertising industry trade publications, most recently with a warranty spat involving a customer unhappy with a defective engagement ring. We’ve been tracking the situation and decided to dig into the history of the brand and its founder, James Cash Penney, to look for opportunities for the brand to realign itself with the values that propelled its emergence as a retail icon. It turns out that Mr. Penney was a quintessential American businessman who created a wildly successful company by always keeping his customers’ needs at the forefront of his thinking, and by always abiding by The Golden Rule. Indeed his very first stores were called The Golden Rule Stores.
JCPenney is firmly entrenched in middle class American heritage, largely due to its procurement of quality goods which it has a history of offering at affordable prices, which fulfills the needs of the majority of American families. They are not a high fashion brand, nor are they a cheap discount brand. On the contrary, the focus on quality merchandise and superior customer service has allowed them to flourish without skewing to either extreme, at least historically.
The north star that once guided the company appears to have grown dim or perhaps been lost in recent years. Wild changes in leadership, pricing strategies, messaging, etc. have left employees and customers confused, disillusioned, and in some cases angry. Who can blame them? They don’t know what JCPenney stands for anymore. It’s questionable whether or not JCPenney itself knows what it stands for.
Revisiting the history of what made this brand great reveals opportunities for a compelling brand turnaround story. Below is a fictional letter we wrote from the late James Cash Penney. It represents what we believe he would have to say to the leadership of the company if he were alive today. Perhaps by honoring the memory of this great American businessman, ideas can be sparked that will lead this brand back down the path to greatness.
Dear JCPenney Board and Management,
When I started JCPenney over 100 years ago, I believed that doing the right thing for our customers was essential to success. In fact, treating our customers with respect is how we grew from a single store in Wyoming to over 2,000 stores nationwide at our peak. I always believed in people and provided opportunities for our employees to move up and thrive in management positions if they wanted to work for it.
It was always important to be a solid member of the communities where we conducted business, which is why we grew to be the size we did. Because we respected and helped to strengthen the communities we served, people in those communities became loyal customers. As I once said, a merchant who approaches business with the idea of serving the public well has nothing to fear from the competition. I still believe that, and wish JCPenney would get back to living and breathing that principle.
Times change, of course, but one constant that I believe should be unwavering is the commitment to serve the public well. To do this, you need to understand those whom you serve. Sometimes the easy answers are not the right answers, and getting to know the people you serve requires more listening and less talking. It’s not enough to just say you’re listening; you have to actually go out and connect with people face to face and discover the things they care about. And of course, when you make a mistake, own up to it and make things right. Always stand by your word.
When I look at the situation facing our nation today, I wonder how people across the country can make ends meet in the midst of the challenging economy and seemingly endless desire to have bigger, more expensive things. Middle class Americans are struggling and I believe JCPenney has a vital role to play in helping these people provide for their families and realize the American dream – a dream that was central to the founding of the company way back in 1902.
“Fair & Square” means more than just the price of goods in the store – it’s a bigger theme that includes the concerns of employees, vendors, and of course the people in the communities where JCPenney conducts business. I’d love to see a return to respect for American-made goods that helps to boost local communities by providing jobs for the American middle class. I believe the value of those jobs and the goods that are produced are clearly superior and can be priced fairly while still being profitable. I think it’s up to JCPenney to take a stand here and give customers the opportunity to support reinvestment in our local communities while purchasing quality goods for their families.
Things are definitely different than they were over 100 years ago, but certain principles are timeless. Following the Golden Rule is still a winning strategy and honoring the customer is just plain smart business. I once remarked that the art of effective listening is essential to clear communication, and clear communication is necessary to management success. This has never been more true than it is now, and I hope the management of JCPenney will get back to this way of thinking in the months and years ahead.
I’m proud of what we built with JCPenney and proud to have been part of the fabric of this great nation all these years. Hopefully this legacy will live on as a new generation picks up the torch and blazes the trail forward.
James Cash Penney