To my favorite struggling department store:
First, I just want to say that I’m sorry, J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP). I know you worked hard perfecting the Inception-esque store-within-a-store model, so yesterday’s wake-up call must’ve been hard.
Investors stopped drooling over your new layout, and instead focused on Ron Johnson’s expectations for a second half that’ll be just as bad as the first … and the resulting hit to your shares yesterday couldn’t have felt good.
The last thing I want to do is kick you when you’re down, but you’ve been more down than up this year anyway, so there wouldn’t be a perfect time to say this anyway …
Well, here it is, JCP: You are stupid.
I mean, you said it yourself: We (your customers) are addicted to sales. Yes, you caught us red-handed in this not-so-secret love affair. But then you went and ripped our sales away — and wondered why things proceeded to fall apart.
Sure, you got desperate. Added the word “clearance” back into your vocabulary. Planned more price cuts. Got rid of the “fair and square” title. Even cut one tier of the pricing scheme that no one understands.
But I swung by one of your stores last weekend and, despite these concessions, your overall message still is that your store isn’t a place for deals and coupons, but for smarter, fairer pricing.
Maybe we’re the stupid ones. When it comes to shopping, we like being stupid. But you’re stupid for trying to change that.
Shoppers might fall for the grand gimmicks that are “sales” — my anti-shopping mom always rolls her eyes at me and says, “If a store can afford to mark it down that much, you know they could afford to sell it for that cheap in the first place” — but maybe the gimmicks are what we’re shopping for in the first place.
As Derek Thompson from The Atlantic explains, we love having a comparative other to justify our decisions — something that makes whatever we’re buying seem cheap even if it really isn’t. Like … oh, I know don’t … a regular price vs. a sale price, for example?
Just an idea.
And more than anything, as Thompson also points out, we’re in love with stories. When someone compliments us on the new Levi’s that we found at your little specialty shop, we jump at the chance to boast about our bargain-hunting prowess.
It’s not like you’re completely blind to this reality, either. You’ve embraced the word “free” — one that we’re suckers for, as researcher Dan Ariely discusses in his book Predictably Irrational — with your latest haircut deal. Who doesn’t love being able to get their kid a free haircut? Hello, mother of the year award! But that’s really the only bone you’ve thrown us lately.
I know you had the best of intentions; that it sounded like a grand idea to ride in on a white horse and save your helpless customers from tricky pricing gimmicks.
I know you thought we deserved better, and that you could do better.
But at the end of the day, you’re a retailer — not a hero — and your job is to give (well, sell) customers what they want. And sometimes, what we want more than anything isn’t a new hoodie or blender, or even promises of “fair pricing,” but the sweet, simple success that comes from finding a heavy markdown, or from perusing countless clearance racks to discover one bargain that we can brag about later, or from being just stupid enough to feel smart.
Don’t take that away from us, J.C. Penney. Don’t let our folly become yours.
One dumb, coupon-loving, clearance-hunting ex-customer
As of this writing, Alyssa Oursler did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.