For J.C. Penney, Stopping the Bleeding Is Not a Turnaround

Struggling retailer J.C. Penney's announcement that it will close 33 stores and lay off 2,000 employees is a step it must take, but with Sears Holdings in a similar situation, announcing terrible results, while competitor Macy's continues to exceed expectations, is it too little, too late?

Jan 19, 2014 at 8:00AM

So far in 2014, J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) has done little to convince investors that its upcoming results for the holiday quarter will be less like what we just got from Sears Holdings (NASDAQ:SHLD), and more like Macy's (NYSE:M) continued stellar results. 

The latest announcement, that it was undertaking a "strategic initiative to accelerate its turnaround" efforts, is a solid indication that the holiday quarter results, set to be announced sometime in February, will be more of the same. According to its November earnings release, the outlook for the holiday period was for comparable store sales to "improve," with no specific range of guidance. 

What should Penney investors do? Let's take a quick look.

Lost in the shuffle
J.C. Penney's biggest problem is a loss of relevance, with no real niche in any of the product categories that it competes in outside of its aggressive coupon and sale program, which led to former-and-now-current CEO Mike Ullman getting let go several years ago, only to replace his replacement when sales fell even further. Last year's Q4 saw sales fall a catastrophic 29%, setting the bar pretty low for a beat this year. 

However, a beat won't get it done. 

Another old loser without the assets?
After all, competitor Sears' recent results, which included comparable sales falling near double digits in Sears U.S. stores this past quarter, and 7% overall, showed the retailer losing as much as $350 million in the quarter. Penney, even with an improvement over last year's quarter, is a lock to lose money in Q4, adding to a staggering $1.4 billion in net losses through the third quarter. 

One of the key differences between Sears and J.C. Penney, according to many, is that Sears owns more of its properties, versus holding long-term leases, and these assets have significant value for investors even as sales continue to slide. In a worst-case scenario, a liquidation of Sears' assets would give some return to shareholders, while Penney's less valuable property holdings, and nearly $5 billion in debt, combined with the mounting losses, significantly shorten the amount of time that Penney's management team has to salvage anything for shareholders, much less complete a meaningful turnaround. 

Finding a place
Macy's has done a commendable job of establishing itself as a premium style leader where consumers can go to be plugged into the latest fashion trends. It has a number of celebrity partners, including music and fashion trendsetters Beyonce and Diddy, and style guru Clinton Kelly. At the end of the day, these personalities attract a wider audience -- especially a young one -- to Macy's stores, leading to sales growth as reported in the quarter. 

Penney and Sears both, however, have yet to find a strategy that will attract meaningful amounts of new customers. Even after adding Stephen Sadove, former CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue, to the company's board of directors, management is still pursuing its heavy-discounting theme, pitting it squarely against online competition like Amazon, and outlet mall operators like Tanger, where the company doesn't have a presence. 

Final thoughts: A long way to go, very little time to get there
The announced 33-store closing is projected to save Penney $65 million per year, a far cry from the $1.6 billion-plus it will lose in 2013. Penney does need to close stores -- there's no denying that. But at some point, management has to find something that attracts new customers -- and more of them -- into the stores. Because, as Macy's continues to show, if you can't attract customers who want to spend money, versus customers just looking for a steal, you can't grow. 

For Penney and its shareholders, the time to figure out how to attract new customers is quickly running out.

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