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Based on this year's performance, there hasn't really been a "right" time to invest in J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP ) . The company has had no end of woes, and it has so far failed to make the long-coming turnaround anything more than a theoretical entity. The latest round of trouble, a rumor that CIT Group had cut off financing, dropped the stock as much as 13%. JC Penney's assurance that it was only a rumor was mitigated by Citigroup's -- banks need better names -- downgrading the business for its failure to produce results.
While I thought that the time to bail out on J.C. Penney came in 2012, some investors seem tied to the potential in the business. The brand, the locations, and the price point should all combine to make this a winner -- but it just isn't. While J.C. Penney has the cash to keep working, there's no reason to invest in a company that's just spinning its wheels.
The turnaround turnaround
There's something to be said for giving people the time necessary to make things better. In recent years, football at the college and professional levels has been so quick to give up on coaches that it makes me furious -- everyone deserves a fair shot. The thing is, J.C. Penney has had its time. Yes, Ron Johnson took up a big piece of that time, and yes, Mike Ullman is just getting restarted, but there's still no clear path.
Some investors have speculated that J.C. Penney may have a new role as a real estate manager, leasing out its weaker locations to other companies. I think that's a great idea, and if it ever comes to fruition, everyone should consider it. But that's not investing in J.C. Penney -- that's investing in a vague hope. It's also a hope that has grown dimmer since J.C. Penney leveraged its real estate to take out a huge loan.
Today's note from Citi spelled it out in one sentence. It read, "We do not believe that JCP has made progress in stabilizing the business in 2Q13, and we see no evidence of a turnaround in the works."
Dropping the ball
The key for me is the lack of stabilization. Everything is still up in the air, and no one knows where it's all going to land. In the last quarter, comparable store sales declined 16.6% year over year, with revenue dropping 16.4%. Macy's (NYSE: M ) and Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN ) were both able to make gains over the same period. Macy's pushed comparable sales up 3.8%, while Nordstrom managed a 2.7% increase.
The percentage one way or the other is almost less important than the fact that both Macy's and Nordstrom know what they're doing, and what they want to do. Macy's is revamping stores and retraining employees to make the Macy's shopping experience something different. Nordstrom is innovating in-store and online to try and become an omnichannel leader.
J.C. Penney is filling the store with back-to-school styles from the same second tier brands that it's always had, and hoping that it can make a few bucks off home wares, while its battle with Macy's over Martha Stewart products continues. Walking into a store now, I can't imagine anyone being struck by the company's quality -- they'd be too distracted by the writing on the wall.
While J.C. Penney hasn't been able to keep up with the pace of change, that doesn't mean everyone has been left behind. The retail space is in the midst of the biggest paradigm shift since mail order took off at the turn of last century. Only those most forward-looking and capable companies will survive, and they'll handsomely reward those investors who understand the landscape. You can read about the 3 Companies Ready to Rule Retail in The Motley Fool's special report. Uncovering these top picks is free today; just click here to read more.