JCPenney’s Not-So-Black Friday

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For most retailers, the upcoming Black Friday will be bigger (more deals, longer hours) than ever before. But what does a store do on Black Friday if it’s promised to stop using the discounts and marketing and sales gimmicks that the day is best known for?

Nearly all of 2012 has been an experiment for JCPenney. The experiment began in late January, when CEO Ron Johnson announced a new era of “fair and square” prices, in which inflated markups, coupons, and other classic sales shenanigans would disappear. Short-lived deals that forced shoppers to, say, “come to a store between 8 and 10 a.m. on a Sunday in order to get the best price” would be gone too, said Johnson. Presumably, so too would “doorbusters,” the dramatically discounted, limited-inventory merchandise used as magnets to entice shoppers into malls during the pre-dawn the day after Thanksgiving.

With these restrictions in place, what would a Black Friday look like at JC Penney? No one really knew until Johnson announced the company’s plans earlier this week.

Talking with USA Today, Johnson revealed the company’s game plan, which includes plenty of “one day only” discounts similar to many Black Friday sales. On the other hand, JCPenney, with its lower “fair and square” original prices, won’t host the ridiculous 80% markdowns offered by competitor retailers. So it’s not exactly a traditional Black Friday. Perhaps “Gray Friday” is the better term?

(MORE: What’s With All the Leaked Black Friday Ads?)

Also, in addition to ongoing free photo and haircut promotions for the holidays, JCPenney will be the place to go for buttons:

“Instead of mailing out millions of coupons, we’ll be handing out millions of buttons,” said CEO Ron Johnson in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY, touting the retailer’s new strategy, which downplays sales and promotions. “We believe in acts of generosity.”

Throughout the holiday shopping season, consumers in JCPenney stores will be given buttons featuring Santa, reindeer, gingerbread men, and so on. Each button comes with a unique code on the back, which, when entered at jcp.com/christmas, could win you prizes—gift cards worth $5 to $500, JCP merchandise, even trips to Disneyland, Yellowstone, and to see company’s spokesperson Ellen Degeneres‘ show in person.

The JCPenney press release concerning Black Friday also explains that, despite its months-long campaign against complicated, ultra-low pricing, there will indeed be sales on the day after Thanksgiving:

“Black Friday is America’s greatest shopping tradition and we’re celebrating the occasion with our only sale of the year,” said Ron Johnson, chief executive officer of jcpenney. “All day long, customers will find some of our lowest prices ever and the chance to win amazing gifts, including once in a lifetime trips to great American destinations. It’s our way of kicking off the holiday season and saying, ‘Merry Christmas, America!'”

(MORE: Timing It Right: A Sweet Spot Emerges for Snagging the Best Holiday Gift Deals)

Carefully worded corporate quote aside, it seems as if Johnson feels forced to play along with the usual distasteful Black Friday games. The company just reported a hefty third quarter loss, marking the third quarter in a row of losses—and the latest sign of how customers appear to be rejecting Johnson’s “fair and square” no-discounting approach to retail.

The New York Post quoted one analyst’s recent take on JCPenney’s performance:

“Trends at JCPenney are obviously getting worse, not better, and we are becoming more and more convinced that sales in 2013 will also decline, which could lead to a going-concern problem next year,” said Charles Grom, an analyst at Deutsche Bank.

Because JCPenney’s pricing changes alienated its oldest, most loyal customers—the ones accustomed to 70% off deals—another analyst told MarketWatch that he expects that the retailer is “going to have a poor Christmas.”

(MORE: Holiday Shoppers Can Look Forward to an Extra Bloated Black Friday)

Based on a scanned copy of JCPenney’s Black Friday ad, it seems unlikely that the retailer will be a particularly hot place to shop during Thanksgiving weekend. Stores will open at 6 a.m. on Friday morning—not Thanksgiving night, like Walmart, Toys R Us, and others—and because JCPenney’s prices are lower to begin with, the Black Friday discounts don’t seem all that amazing. The selection includes $40 coats (normally up to $70), $15 Isotoner glovers (normally $22), $10 sweaters (normally $13 to $15), $6 JCrew long-sleeve crewneck T-shirts (normally $9), $25 Nicole Miller tote bags (normally $50), $895 white gold rings (normally $1,195), $15 radio-controlled toys (normally $20), and $15 kids bubble jackets (normally $17).

Whereas the originally announced overhaul of the JCPenney brand felt bold and gutsy, its plans for the Black Friday and the rest of the holidays seem meek and forced. But Ron Johnson clearly feels like he has to do something.

In related news, investors certainly don’t seem impressed with JCPenney lately. On Monday, when the retailer’s Black Friday plans made news, the company’s stock price dipped below $18, after trading as high as $24 just last week.

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