NEW YORK – There won’t be an easy fix for J.C. Penney – if it can be fixed at all.
As Mike Ullman takes the reins again less than two years after his departure, he faces a Herculean task in undoing the mess left by CEO Ron Johnson, who was ousted Monday. With the department store retailer in the middle of a disastrous overhaul that has driven away shoppers, the 66-year-old Ullman has to quickly figure out what parts of Johnson’s legacy to keep and what to trash.
The overarching question is whether the century-old company can be saved at all. Very few retailers have recovered from a 25 percent sales drop in a single year, like that suffered by Penney under Johnson’s watch. On Tuesday, the retailer’s stock price dropped more than 12 percent to a 12-year-low of $13.93 as investors’ worries escalated about Penney’s future.
“Ullman can’t go back to the old ways, but he can’t do what Ron Johnson did,” said Ron Friedman, head of the retail and consumer products group at Marcum LLP, a national accounting and consulting firm. “I think there will be a combination of the two. But he has to make some quick moves.”
Apparently, the company’s board of directors felt Ullman, who served as Penney’s CEO for seven years and is known for strong relationships with suppliers and calm, steady execution, would be the best choice right now to secure the company’s future. But it could take Ullman 18 months to stabilize the business, says Burt Flickinger III, president of retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group. He gives the chain a 50-50 chance to survive.
“The odds are declining every day,” said Flickinger, noting that rivals like Macy’s are taking away market share. “Competitors see blood in the water.”
Johnson, the mastermind behind Apple’s successful retail stores, lasted just 17 months. He faced an ever-growing chorus of critics calling for his resignation as they lost faith in the aggressive overhaul. The rapid-fire changes included getting rid of coupons and most discounts in favor of everyday low prices, bringing in new brands and remaking its outdated stores. Johnson’s goal was to reinvent the stodgy retailer into a mini-mall of hip specialty shops.
Instead, Penney’s loyal shoppers went in search of deals elsewhere, and the chain didn’t attract the younger and more affluent shoppers that Johnson coveted. Now the 1,100-store chain is burning through cash. In the past year, the company lost nearly a billion dollars and saw its revenue tumble by nearly $4.3 billion to $12.98 billion. Customer traffic dropped 13 percent. Steep sales declines have continued, say analysts, even though Johnson added back some sales events and coupons early this year.
Some speculate that Ullman may ditch the everyday price strategy and instead ramp up the return to discounting and coupons to get shoppers back in the stores. But that will still be an expensive move. Michael Binetti, an analyst at UBS Investment Research, and others believe that Ullman also will temporarily suspend the rollout of the mini-shops, which started late last year and feature such brands as Joe Fresh and Levi’s. That means that some suppliers who expected to have mini-shops could be left in the lurch.
Ullman also will have to find ways to boost employee morale amid severe cuts that have slashed the workforce by nearly 30 percent. As of February, Penney employed 116,000 full- and part-time workers, down from 159,000 a year ago.
Whatever Ullman ends up doing, analysts expect him to be thoughtful and deliberate in his moves. That’s a big difference from Johnson, who was criticized for not testing his strategies in a few stores, particularly the pricing plan.
The board “chose stability and experience, in my mind,” said Antony Karabus, president of SD Retail Consulting. “Instead of big, grandiose ideas, what they need now is someone to stabilize and execute effectively. He has a calm way about him. If anyone can do it, he can, because he knows the business. He knows the customers.”