According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, one of the definitions of the word "sustainable" is "able to last or continue for a long time." With that in mind, it's somewhat ironic that J.C. Penney (OTC:JCPN.Q) put out a press release entitled "2013 Sustainability Report" in regard to its environmental initiatives.
Here is a company whose own "sustainability" is in grave danger, yet it continues to pour its dwindling resources into saving the planet when it should be first focused on saving itself. The report is for the fiscal year ending February 2013, so hopefully the company is less focused on this now.
2013 sustainability report
On Jan. 22, J.C. Penney issued a press release highlighting the report, which focused on the company's positive environmental and social influences. It was a nice eight-paragraph detailing of all sorts of things that have little to do with building or even improving shareholder value.
In the release, CEO Mike Ullman stated, "JCPenney has recently experienced a time of transition and change, but we've never lost our focus on the importance of being socially and environmentally responsible." This doesn't sound too reassuring about current operations and almost seems like the company is trying to distract the public from that more-important topic.
Don't get me wrong. It's very noble of J.C. Penney to serve its communities and conserve precious resources, but shouldn't the "green" resources it's focused on saving be the greenbacks in its shrinking bank account? A company needs to save itself before it can succeed with "philanthropic efforts."
Holiday performance release
Now compare that full-page press release to the one announcing its holiday performance. The entire body of it fits into this article:
JCPenney reported today that the Company is pleased with its performance for the holiday period, showing continued progress in its turnaround efforts. Customers responded well to the Company's offerings this holiday shopping season, both in store and online.
That seems kind of thin, to say the least. Ullman did offer comments in the sustainability report release but had nothing personal to say in the press release ironically entitled "J.C. Penney Company, Inc. Comments on Holiday Performance."
Maybe it's just poor communication and strategies from J.C. Penney, and maybe the company will emerge and execute a successful turnaround. However, if it does indeed fail, these little signs and clues will in hindsight look like obvious indicators of a company that management knew in advance was doomed for failure.
Macy's (NYSE:M) and Kohl's (NYSE:KSS) must be salivating at the prospect of J.C. Penney going under. Macy's has reported that it continues to flourish despite a "questionable macroeconomic environment with challenging weather in multiple states." During the holiday season, Macy's saw same-store sales jump 3.6%. Including licensed departments, same-store sales leaped by 4.3%. If Macy's could successfully take even just a little of the spillover effect from a defunct J.C. Penney, it could lead to even more impressive numbers.
Meanwhile, Kohl's hasn't reported preliminary holiday results yet, but for the first time, it was open for more than 100 hours straight leading up to Christmas. It's hard to imagine it would do that if there wasn't profitable demand to support such a move. The company guided for same-store sales between 0% and a decline of 2%, so if J.C. Penney is out of the picture it could give Kohl's just enough increased demand to put it back into growth mode.
Foolish final thoughts
Despite my admittedly somewhat negative bias against J.C. Penney, I actually want the company to turn around and succeed. I find myself combing through all available data looking for a reason to invest, but I rarely find one. Until J.C. Penney provides more compelling evidence that its fortunes are finally changing for the better, I am avoiding the stock like the plague, and I think other Fools should consider doing so too.
As much as I love to root for the underdog, especially with a beaten-down stock that could potentially make a huge move, I see too much risk right now with J.C. Penney. Remember, no matter how "cheap" a stock seems, a 100% loss is still a 100% loss no matter where your entry price is.