The department store of the future has apps

JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson -- an Apple veteran -- takes inspiration from the tech company to pave a path into the future for his department store.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

The department store of the future? There's an app for that.

Actually, there are hundreds of apps for that.

That's according to JCPenney chief executive Ron Johnson, who said during a conference call yesterday that the mid-range American department store chain should take inspiration from tech superstar Apple in its quest to revitalize a sagging brand.

"All those boutiques are the apps," Johnson said during an open house tour of the store's shops. "What JCPenney is creating is a new interface. All right? So the secret is the shops, right. And in this store you saw today, you experienced 17 shops. Eventually there will be 100. It's a lot of shops. And each of them will be pure."

The company's new store design is undoubtedly inspired by Apple's blockbuster foray into retail, which reversed the notion that a bricks-and-mortar store can't compete in a world where e-commerce is king. Johnson was a part of the team that devised Apple's retail strategy, working closely with the late chief executive Steve Jobs to push the tech company into a new area of business. Apple now enjoys higher sales per square foot than any retailer in the U.S.

The secret? Being "pure" -- that is, allowing each boutique to be fully imagined as its own, saturated with its unique message, rather than introducing conflicting branding by the department store itself.

"It's like when Steve talked about the iPhone," he said. "Apple created the screen. Apple created a lot of the technology that runs that phone. [But what] we love [on] our phone is our apps." To succeed against rivals (such as Macy's, Target, Kohl's, Walmart, Kmart, Nieman Marcus and Nordstrom), Johnson said, JCPenney needs to provide a cohesive platform -- then get out of the way.

"If all of a sudden this thing has a standard JC Penney hanger, standard JCPenney sign -- I'm not going to know if I'm really in a Joe Fresh store or a JCPenney version of a Joe fresh store," he said. "People want to connect with Joe Fresh."

Johnson outlined additional upgrades to the store's layout, including wider aisles and places for customers to sit and address personal needs, whether it's checking e-mail or addressing a troubled toddler. It's the benefit of new checkout technology that reduces the footprint of that area. "You don't have to leave the store to continue on with your life," he said.

Today, JCPenney customers think the brand is "old-fashioned," "polyester," "overstuffed," "disorganized" and low-end. Apple-inspired cues are designed to drastically and completely change that, Johnson said.

"Creative, sophisticated, not a lower middle class store anymore, vibrant, organized, higher quality and lower prices, modern, open, fun, innovative," he said. "We spent 100 years building out the [negative] list on the left. In 100 minutes, the perception changed. It shows the power in my opinion of rethinking everything. It's pricing, it's products, it's presentation, it's place, it's people. That's the magic of reinvention. That's the magic of transformation."

It seems to be working. JCPenney's boutique bid for younger customers is already showing sales 20 percent higher than the conventional store layout.

Apple's Jobs once called the company's iPad "our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price." Swap the words "advanced technology" for "premium vendors" and "device" for "store" and Johnson's apple hasn't fallen far from the tree after all.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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