Last month, executives at struggling department store chain J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) laid out a three-year plan to return to profitability. The plan involves growing revenue by more than $2 billion over the next three years, which would represent nearly half of the sales volume lost during the Ron Johnson era.
The problem is that J.C. Penney's momentum has stalled out. Last quarter, J.C. Penney's revenue declined 0.5% year-over-year on flat same-store sales. A strong Black Friday performance would go a long way to getting J.C. Penney back on the right track.
Holiday season is key
The holiday season is a critical time for all department stores, as discretionary consumer spending surges in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last year, J.C. Penney pulled in 31.9% of its annual revenue during the holiday quarter. That quarter also marked J.C. Penney's first same-store sales gain since the middle of 2011.
The fiscal fourth quarter tends to bring in an even greater percentage of department store earnings. Higher sales volume allows retailers to leverage their fixed costs, producing higher margins. Looking back to 2009 and 2010 -- prior to the Ron Johnson era -- J.C. Penney produced more than half of its annual profit during Q4.
Additionally, sales are very "lumpy" during the fourth quarter. Retailers generate vastly more revenue in November and December than they do in January. Moreover, as much as 36% of all sales for the months of November and December come on the top 10 shopping days, with Black Friday leading the way.
J.C. Penney will be out front
In the last few years, "Black Friday" has crept backward into Thanksgiving Day itself. At first, various retailers waited until midnight on Friday to open their doors for Black Friday sales, but increasingly, major retailers have opened their doors on Thanksgiving evening.
In 2012, J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson made a bold move to win over consumers by "honoring" Thanksgiving. While many other retailers opened between 8 p.m. on Thursday evening and midnight on Black Friday, J.C. Penney waited until 6 a.m. Friday morning to open its doors. Most customers weren't impressed. J.C. Penney's comparable-store sales plunged 31.7% in Q4 2012.
This year, J.C. Penney is taking the opposite approach in a bid to revitalize its sales growth. The company is opening most of its stores at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day to begin its "Black Friday" sale. That's an hour before most of its department store competitors plan to open.
J.C. Penney has released a massive Black Friday circular featuring deals on a wide range of merchandise. The retailer is also giving away coupons at the door for $10 off a $10 purchase (or, for some lucky shoppers, $100 off a $100 purchase).
J.C. Penney has additional offers that are valid on Black Friday itself. On Friday from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., for every $75 purchase, J.C. Penney is giving away $20 in "bonus cash" that can be used later in the holiday season. Later in the day on Friday, it's offering an additional 20% off purchases made with a J.C. Penney credit card.
Will shoppers return?
J.C. Penney is clearly pulling out all the stops in a bid to win back the bargain-hunting customers that it lost in 2012 when it tried to move away from coupons and discounts. It needs to boost sales by about 20% from today's level in order to return to profitability.
However, shoppers tend to be creatures of habit. It would be tough under the best of circumstances to win back business from people who started shopping regularly at Macy's instead of J.C. Penney in 2012. On Thanksgiving weekend, when just about every retailer is running a big promotion, it will be even harder for J.C. Penney to make big market share gains.
Opening early and bringing back doorbuster sales and coupons should help J.C. Penney keep pace with its retail peers. It's not likely to give the company the big boost it needs, though.