Even as chief rival Sears has closed hundreds of stores and abandoned many markets, J.C. Penney hasn't been able to capitalize. The same is true of sales categories abandoned by the loss of other retailers, including the closure of Toys "R" Us.
J.C. Penney has moved to fill market needs, and the market has largely said: "we can get that elsewhere." Even with less brick-and-mortar competition, the company saw comparable-store sales drop 4% in the fourth quarter and 3.1% for the year. The chain also posted a full-year loss of $255 million.
Can a new CEO save the company?
Jill Soltau became CEO of J.C. Penney after her predecessor, Marvin Ellison, abruptly left to take the same job at Lowe's. You can argue that the leading home-improvement retailer was a major promotion, or you can say Ellison jumped off a sinking ship.
No matter how you view the former boss' departure, Soltau came to the game with limited time left on the clock. She wasn't able to change much heading into the holiday season, and her only major move has been to abandon selling appliances -- something Ellison had added to take advantage of Sears' departure from many markets. Soltau knows she has her work cut out for her and attempted to paint a positive picture in her remarks in the Q4 earnings release.
"Based on everything I have seen and heard, I am even more convinced that J.C. Penney is a revered brand that has the capacity to deliver improved results," she said. "In spite of our past financial performance, we have already taken meaningful steps to drive improvement in key businesses such as women's apparel, active apparel, special sized apparel, and fine jewelry."
That sounds nice but it's not all that different from what Ellison said each and every quarter. J.C. Penney has tweaked merchandise, added categories, and tried to give consumers a reason -- any reason -- to remember that it exists.
Can this brand be saved?
Soltau isn't naive, but the challenge is bigger than she lets on. J.C. Penney stores have suffered from years of neglect and lack of innovation. The chain may make changes to its inventory, but the stores are outdated, and nothing about them, aside from the ability to try things on, gives consumers a reason to leave their couch.
The new CEO understands the challenge. What she's not saying in her comments is that there may be no way to win back a public that may simply have moved on.
"As we forge a path to sustainable profitable growth, our decisions included eliminating non-core and low gross margin product categories, significantly reducing unproductive inventory, and continuing the revitalization of our women's apparel business," she said. "While we are pleased with these actions, we know we need to move faster to re-establish the fundamentals of retail, build capabilities focused on satisfying our customers' wants and needs, and ensure that our digital and store operations operate seamlessly to provide an experience that wins with customers."
The risk to the brand is that J.C. Penney has already lost its shot with customers and none of these moves are big enough to win another chance. If you already pass by the chain when you're walking around the mall, tweaks to its inventory won't be something you notice. That makes it likely that even with a smart CEO steering the ship in the right direction, J.C. Penney may just sink due to consumer apathy.