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Can an iPhone 5 Save JC Penney?

It seems that Apple has the Midas Touch, and when JC Penney brought former SVP Ron Johnson on board in late 2011, it was heralded by many as a genius decision. Long relegated to the back of consumers’ minds [along with Sears], it appeared that this department store dinosaur was finally making a conscious effort to reinvigorate its stodgy image and arming itself to compete with its more present day foes: Macy’s, Kohl’s, and TJ Maxx.

With the advent of m-commerce, social media, and increasing connectivity, it seemed that this marriage between an Apple exec and JC Penney was a solid union – at least enough to advance the department store into 21st century retailing. However, as 2012 has progressed, it has become clear that the new “Fair & Square” JC Penney has gotten off to a very rocky start.

While JC Penney certainly has taken some steps in the right direction – focusing on exclusive brand names from the likes of Nicole Miller, Liz Claiborne, Mango, and even the Olsen twins takes a page from Kohl’s and Macy’s successful playbooks. Today’s consumers demand quality products at great prices, and they want to feel good about their purchases when walking out of the store. Here’s where JC Penney missteps: they have eliminated the excitement from the shoppers’ buying process. Having an extra 10-20% off coupon or buying an item on sale – which Kohl’s and Macy’s offer in abundance – gives the shopper the feeling that they’ve one-upped the retailer, i.e. the customer wins.

This shopping euphoria is essential when marketing apparel in an uncertain economy. Consumers already had closets full of clothes, and when it came time to really trim budgets during the “Great Recession,” apparel was one of the easiest budget cuts to stomach. It’s interesting that even during a downturn in the economy, electronics sold – maybe with a little less frequency and at somewhat lower price points, but the latest HDTVs, tablets, notebooks, smartphones, and all things iOS were, and continue to be, hot selling items. Budget-conscious consumers could justify the purchase of a new TV or computer; these were items that the whole family could enjoy, helped us multitask, and in some cases, assist with homework. In other words, electronics were fun, practical, and educational. Consumers literally couldn’t buy into this same reasoning when it came to apparel or home goods, categories that JC Penney so desperately needed to move on the selling floor.

When Johnson joined JC Penney last year, it appeared that the Apple “ego” followed him as well. Apple is an innovative brand with a heady following, and its retail outlets, which Johnson cultivated, served to build on this loyalty and brought out the curiosity in others – they were what shoppers demanded and gravitated toward.

JC Penney lacks the Apple cachet, and its “Fair & Square” overhaul – ditching coupons and weekly promotions in the process – failed to make a compelling argument as to why shoppers needed to check out their revamped stores. Sure low prices are great, but the new normal directs shoppers to seek out that extra incentive when it comes to buying non-essentials like apparel and home décor. The “new” JC Penney already has proof of this – just look at its successful free haircut promotion for Back-to-School; the operative word here, of course, is free.

A glance at what motivates shoppers to make apparel purchases shows us the continued importance of instore promotions and coupons in this category. According to BIGinsight’s semi-annual Media Behaviors and Influence™ survey of 25,000 consumers, apparel sales and promotions are the #1 driver for shoppers of many of the top U.S. retailers, including JC Penney, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Gap, H&M, and Nordstrom – yes, even promotions are key with luxury shoppers. And, in instances where instore promotions aren’t the top motivation for apparel purchases, they are still likely top of mind. At TJ Maxx, for example, while 42.3% rely on word of mouth, nearly as many (40.4%) value a good sale.

While word of mouth is the #2 influencer for apparel purchases among JC Penney shoppers (at 36.3%), coupons are almost as important (35.5%). JC Penney customers’ attraction to apparel coupons is stronger than that of the general population (30.7%) as well. Coupons don’t carry nearly as much clout over in Apple’s wheelhouse – electronics – so it’s plain to see why Johnson was so quick to axe those money-savers at JC Penney.

So can an iPhone save JC Penney? Can a marketing approach borne from Apple revive a struggling department store? Can pigs fly? Clearly not. What works for Apple – what used to work for Ron Johnson – simply has no place in JC Penney’s strategy. Today’s apparel shoppers have honed their bargain-hunting skills and crave a good deal on their terms. Instead of trying to force “Fair & Square” on the buying public – much like the launch of a great, new, innovative product à la Apple – JC Penney really should have first become more attuned its target customers.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com as a contribution to the Prosper Now blog.

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Amazon #1 In Customer Service, But Will This Lead To Sustainable Loyalty?

September 5, 2012 Leave a comment
Recently our friends over at the National Retail Federation directed us to Amazon.com, where Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos had once again posted a public letter to customers, this time stating:

I’m happy to report that Amazon has been rated #1 in the National Retail Federation Customers’ Choice Awards…

Why were we excited to see this? BIGinsight compiled the list of Customers’ Choice Award recipients for the NRF Foundation, which was unveiled at their BIG Show earlier this year. These awards recognize the retailers that provide the “best” customer service and were nominated through an unaided, write-in question by (who else?) consumers.

2011 Customers’ Choice Awards: Top Ten (source: NRF Foundation)

  1. Amazon.com
  2. L.L. Bean
  3. Zappos.com
  4. Overstock.com
  5. QVC
  6. Kohl’s
  7. Lands’ End
  8. JC Penney
  9. Newegg.com
  10. Nordstrom

Customer service in the conventional sense has generally implied face-to-face communication: greeting a customer; providing him/her with product information, demonstrations, additional options, or size assistance; suggesting add-ons or complementary products; and finally, completing the sale. Historically, the best opportunity to cultivate great customer relationships is within an environment where personal interaction between the retailer (i.e. sales associates) and customers is at its peak: a physical store.

So does it surprise you that a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer didn’t top this year’s list? Further, just three of the retailers (Kohl’s, JC Penney, Nordstrom) who graced the top 10 aren’t primarily entrenched in e-commerce, catalog selling, or home shopping.

So how does Amazon rank #1 in customer service?

The digital age has forced the evolution of customer service. In a world where emails and texts have replaced more intimate forms of communication, where shoppers can complete a sale 24/7 via online transactions, and where showrooming is linking the physical shopping experience with the virtual, the modern definition of customer service seems to have downgraded the importance of direct human interaction. And, let’s not forget that customer service in the traditional sense has also been crippled in recent years by an economy fostering a trend toward part-time, minimum wage, less “invested” sales associates.

As the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon has been a driving force behind the e-commerce movement and changing standards for customer service excellence. Some of the words consumers used in their reasons to nominate Amazon for Customers’ Choice included “efficient,” “fast,” “reliable,” “no hassle,” “easy,” and of course, “free shipping.” Note that these terms differ vastly from those who nominated Nordstrom, THE purveyor of traditional customer service: “experience,” “friendly,” “personal,” and “knowledgeable.” [More specific reasons can be found here for each retailer included in the top 10.]

Consider too the e-commerce services that online shoppers (a growing group) value. While the majority indicates that toll free “live” customer service very important or important, this figure has declined nearly 10% from 2007. With customers increasingly gravitating to such services as low prices, free shipping, and easy to use websites over the past few years, it’s obvious that verbal communication isn’t a service prerequisite when it comes to buying online.

Important/Very Important Services when Shopping Online

But are Amazon’s low prices, free shipping, and efficient turnaround enough to capture sustainable customer loyalty? After all, the troubled economy did create a new consumer – one who shops around, is value-oriented, and may find it increasingly difficult to create ties with one retailer over another.

One of the most fascinating parts of the retail industry is that we are always looking toward for what’s “next” – hot new trends, advancements in technology, gotta-have products, or evolving practices that change the way we do business. Retailers like Best Buy and JC Penney have already announced efforts to ramp up one-on-one interaction to drive customers back to their stores, looking ahead to perhaps a renaissance of traditional customer service.

With its history as a game-changer, though, Amazon just might remain what’s “next” for the foreseeable future.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com as a contribution to the Prosper Now blog.

“Fair is Fair” but is Square…well…Square?

March 22, 2012 8 comments

As any self-respecting child of the 80’s knows – “Fair is Fair.” Doesn’t the theme from that nearly 30 year old [ack!] cult classic take you back? Pat Benatar, anyone? Supergirl? An undying love for Christian Slater? But I digress…let’s hop out of the DeLorean and evaluate what really got me thinking about “Fair is Fair”:

JC Penney’s new “Fair & Square” Ad Campaign

The complete overhaul of JCP’s marketing, merchandising, and promotions plans certainly made headlines in the retail community, but what do consumers really think about this strategy switch-up? In addition to being practical and realistic in their purchasing, today’s shoppers are also “intelligent”: researching products, comparing prices, stalking sales, and couponing like crazy.  And, consumers are all the more informed when aided by their mobile devices. Knowing all this, it seems that JCP’s new “Fair & Square” approach might be as dated as a Flock of Seagulls hairdo. So who’s buying what JCP’s selling?Hot or Not? JC Penney's "Fair & Square" Ad Campaign

In our March Consumer Survey of more than 9,000 consumers, we put JC Penney’s “Fair & Square” Ad Campaign to the test in our monthly “Hot or Not?” feature. As it turns out, more deemed it “not” (58.3%) than “hot” (41.7%) – placing “Fair & Square” in the middle of the pack compared to the other items we polled this month.

But who are the two out of five customers who have at least had their interests – if not their wallets – piqued by “Fair & Square”? These shoppers are more prone to be women (59.9%), married (53.2%), middle-aged (46.7 years, on average), and earning about $56,000/year…sounds like JC Penney’s typical Women’s Clothing shopper.

Is that not interesting enough for you? Let’s take a look at “Fair & Square” from a different perspective – Women’s Clothing shoppers from competing retailers.* Interestingly, fewer shoppers at Walmart – home to the somewhat similar EDLP pricing strategy – warmed up to the idea of “Fair & Square.” Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Old Navy shoppers were relatively more excited by the concept than Kohl’s or Target loyalists:

JC Penney's "Fair & Square" Ad Campaign is HOT

From this standpoint, it appears that most shoppers have a so-so opinion of “Fair & Square” so far. Perhaps they’re walking into JCP to see what all of the fuss is about, but whether or not they’ll convert to the retailer over the long haul remains to be seen – as does the department store’s ability to retain its current customer base.

Ah, Love Retail is a Battlefield.

For more information on this data, please contact BIGinsight™.

* A selection of Women’s Clothing retailers was analyzed for this report. “Women’s Clothing Shoppers” are defined as those who shop most at a given retailer for Women’s Clothing (an unaided, write-in response).

Source: BIGinsight™ Monthly Consumer Survey – MAR-12 (N = 9242, 3/6 – 3/13)

© 2012, Prosper®

BIGinsight™ is a trademark of Prosper Business Development Corp.

Customers’ Choice – A Look Back

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Sorry…we aren’t about to reveal the 2011 Customers’ Choice Winners, but we have been hard at work on this year’s list in recent weeks.  So I thought that now would be a great time to take a look back at previous winners.

For the past several years, we’ve been pleased to provide the research behind the Customers’ Choice Awards to the NRF Foundation…research which (of course) comes straight from the thoughts of more than 9,000 consumers in our Consumer Intentions & Actions® survey.

Zappos.com took home top honors in 2011, moving up from #3 in previous years. Perennial favorites for customer service include Amazon.com, L.L.Bean, and Overstock.com.

Below are the NRF Foundation/American Express Customers’ Choice Award Winners for the past two years:

2010

  1. Zappos.com
  2. Amazon.com
  3. L.L.Bean
  4. Overstock.com
  5. Lands’ End
  6. JC Penney
  7. Kohl’s
  8. QVC
  9. Nordstrom
  10. Newegg

2009

  1. L.L.Bean
  2. Overstock.com
  3. Zappos.com
  4. Amazon.com
  5. QVC
  6. Coldwater Creek
  7. HSN
  8. Lands’ End
  9. JCPenney
  10. (tie) Kohl’s, Nordstrom

To read more about the 2010 results as well as methodology, click here.

Stay tuned for the 2011 results, which will be announced at the NRF 101st Annual Convention & EXPO.

©2011, Prosper®

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