Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) and J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP ) may not have much in common, other than the fact that J.C. Penney likes to swim in the Apple talent pool. But that connection, however small, could prove very significant for the future of the ailing clothing retailer. Former Apple retail chief Ron Johnson is synonymous with J.C. Penney these days, and the company's few remaining bulls are essentially betting solely on Johnson's ability to pull a repeat of his retail genius. Recent moves, however, that are having an impact on the business are coming from a less-discussed Apple-gone-Penny'er -- Mike Fisher. Let's see what the Apple veteran is doing for J.C. Penney and what it could mean for the future of the business, and your shares.
Fisher has done well in the creative retail world. His LinkedIn profile drops more names than the intoxicated guy who can't get into a nightclub. With a stint as creative director at Bloomingdale's, the leader of Coach's expansion into Japan, and most recently as the director of visual merchandising at Apple, it's no wonder that J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson tapped his former co-worker to become the chief creative officer at the struggling retailer.
Coming off the lows?
It's a tough time for J.C. Penney, whose shares have gotten demolished this year as the turnaround has taken a bit longer than expected and with more hiccups along the way. Last quarter, sales slumped more than 26% from the year-ago quarter, prompting many to declare the retailer a dying entity. Johnson disagrees, and so does Fisher.
Fisher is seeing progress from his point of view in the creative department. He's employing an old retail tactic and seeing great results -- mannequins.
That may sound ridiculous, but it's exactly what Fisher told Reuters in a report earlier this week. Fisher notes that everything they put on a mannequin gets sold out -- far outperforming other products in the store. The mannequins feature different combinations of ties, pants, shirts, and accessories aimed at getting customers to shop for entire outfits instead of one or two items. It's part of a strategy to transform the store into a desirable retailer that sells an upscale look at inexpensive prices. This differs from the "rummage through the junk, everything is cheap" reputation that befell J.C. Penney over the past decade.
When same-store sales plummet well into the double digits, any remotely positive area is something to cheer for. While the jury is still out on the majority of Johnson & Co.'s turnaround techniques, it looks like Fisher may have some clue as to bringing customers back into the stores and persuading them to make multiple purchases.
Johnson has successfully wooed multiple executives from his previous employers. Besides the three Apple guys who jumped over to J.C. Penney, Johnson also tapped some of the talent from his days at Target (NYSE: TGT ) . Brian Robinson came over from Target, where he was the director of fashion and design partnerships. Robinson is now the vice president of collaborations at J.C. Penney.
Bears will cite the depressing sales figures, Internet retail competition, and simply years of poor performance as the harbingers of a worthless J.C. Penney. The challenge is certainly a big one, but Johnson has arguably compiled one of the most talented retail teams in the business to try to tackle the issue. If any C-suite is capable of turning around the business, it's most likely the one that's in there right now.
Foolish bottom line
I know I have fewer and fewer supporters as time goes on, but I still believe J.C. Penney is a long-term buy. In addition to the operating business turnaround, you also are looking at a real estate play -- J.C. Penney owns 111 million square feet of space. If this boatload of retail real estate can be converted into just slightly higher sales per foot (and Johnson has the luxury of boasting $6,000-per-square-foot sales at his Apple stores), driven by the 100 boutiques slated to open within the stores, then the stock price immediately bounces off these deathly lows.
Of course, time will ultimately tell, and the risk averse investor may be better off in safer places than your neighborhood JC Penney.
J.C. Penney has been a train wreck whose comeback always seems just around the next earnings corner, but people are beginning to doubt whether Johnson can weave the same magic that he did at Apple. For investors wondering whether J.C. Penney is a buy today, you're invited to claim a copy of The Motley Fool's new must-read report on the company. Learn everything you need to know about J.C. Penney's turnaround -- or lack thereof -- and as a bonus, you'll receive a full year of expert guidance and updates as key news develops. Simply click here now for instant access.