Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at 12:09 pm.

Ron Johnson’s Big Mistake

Johnson’s ideas for a modern department store were good. But JC Penney was the wrong place for them.

Bodum JC Penney

Ron Johnson’s science experiment as CEO of JC Penney ended last night. He’s being replaced by the guy he replaced, a sign that it’s back to the drawing board. (Case in point: As I’m writing this ~18 hours later, Johnson is still listed as CEO on the company’s Executives page — clearly, a well-oiled machine.)

The big picture: Johnson’s turnaround wasn’t working overnight, may never have worked, and it seems that the board freaked out.

Ok.

It would be silly to argue that going back to whatever JC Penney was doing before would be the right solution. The interesting trends in retail are moving away from massive, boring mall department stores, toward e-commerce and smaller specialty stores that fit better in neighborhoods and are actually fun to hang out in. Pay attention to J.Crew’s Men’s Shop or West Elm Market or Fab or Saturdays Surf, not Macy’s or Sears.

But that’s where Johnson goofed up.

Instead of trying to rescue a dying American heritage brand — one that probably deserves what’s coming to it — he could have spent the last year building his own. Instead of trying to fix Honeywell, he could have built Nest. Instead of trying to make a gauche mall store cool again, he could have rented out a few empty Blockbusters and done something interesting.

And he still could! As (my wife) Lauren Sherman writes for Fashionista:

A few savvy investors should throw Johnson some money and let him create a new store identity. Something that’s not weighed down by its unfortunate past.

Of course, it’s easy to see why Johnson made that decision. He’d just helped Steve Jobs revive another American classic, Apple. Why not take the same formula and apply it to retail?

I guess it’s easier to sell someone an iPod than it is to get them back to the mall.

Photo: Chris Rupert

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