Here’s some unsolicited advice for Ron Johnson, the new CEO of J. C. Penney. Mr. Johnson has announced sweeping changes in the way Penney’s will do business, building on his previous successes at Target and Apple. I think his basic plan is not just sound, but laudable. If he really wants to reinvent department-store retail, here’s three specific things he could do:
Have a public e-mail address.
His former boss and mentor, Steve Jobs, had the public e-mail address email@example.com, and the address was well-known to the world. Apple even publicized it on their website. What’s more, Jobs personally monitored the e-mail sent there, and was known to occasionally reply to customer messages. Johnson should do the same: let us mail firstname.lastname@example.org with our feedback. Yes, there will be a lot of noise to go through. On the other hand, CEOs often find themselves isolated from reality behind layers of middle management; having a direct channel to one’s customers helps prevent this. It worked for Steve… and no one else in this retail space is doing it.
Find out when customers are leaving the store because you don’t have their size.
When I shop at department stores, I’m often disappointed to find that they don’t have the size I need in some garment. Most stores don’t do a great job of arranging product to make it easy to find the right size. Even when they do, it seems like they stock sizes based on some inscrutable nationwide formula, not local demand; otherwise, it wouldn’t seem like the local stores are always out of the same sizes!
Look, department-store customers are used to lassez-faire customer service at department stores: We’ve got what we’ve got on the floor, we don’t know what’s coming in next week, we don’t know nothing. If the right size isn’t there, customers just leave. It’s a missed sale… and there’s nothing to tell the retailer “you would have made a sale if you had stocked more of size X.”
Penney’s will make more sales if they have the right sizes. They’ll get more customer traffic if they feel confident the store will have their sizes. You’ll gain customer trust and loyalty if they know you will have their sizes.
The store should figure out some easy way for customers to tell you “I would have bought this item if you had it in this size,” and promote the hell out of it.
Leverage logistics for the customer.
Look, we all know that retailers live and die by logistics and inventory. Penney’s has to know how many items they have in the store, of each type and size. In this day and age, it’s all computerized, and it should be easy to tell how many size-L red men’s cable-knit sweaters you have in the store… and in other stores. If they don’t already have this capability, I’d be astonished.
So, if I come up to a salesperson wishing that the store had that sweater in stock, I should never hear “I’m sorry, we don’t have any” as the sole response. Leverage your logistics; the salesperson should be able to whip out their iPod Touch with its barcode scanner, scan the shelf label, and tell me: “Oh, I’m sorry we’re out of that. I’ve noted that you were looking for it, so we can have more items like that in your size in the future. I see we’re expecting another shipment of this item on Thursday. I can hold one for you, if you’d like. I see our store in Poughkeepsie has two in stock today; I could also call down there and ask them to hold one for you.” (Bonus points: “Or I can have them put one on the truck tonight; it’ll be here tomorrow after noon.”)
This would delight customers, and it shouldn’t cost much—especially if Johnson has any plans to roll out portable-device checkout like he did at the Apple Store. Few stores go this far for the customer nowadays… but I know it used to be standard practice for Penney’s competitors, and that was back when it meant calling the other stores and waiting for someone to check the floor display.