In a meeting with analysts this week, JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson—the retail superstar famous for making the Apple Store a monster success—proudly showed off a model of the JCPenney store of the future, featuring an assortment of branded “stores within the store” focused on products from Levi’s, IZOD, and others. Mini shops like these are already in some JCPenney stores, and they’re outselling the rest of the store’s merchandise by 20%. What seems to be holding JCPenney back from posting terrific sales figures overall, then, is that the stores still largely resemble the JCPenney your grandmother knew.
When Ron Johnson announced a major overhaul of JCPenney’s look, pricing, and products earlier this year, it was universally declared a bold move. The elimination of coupons and sharply decreased use of sales and markdowns were deemed especially risky. Dismal sales figures in 2012 seem to indicate that many old-time JCP shoppers have felt alienated and confused, and have turned elsewhere to hunt for bargains. Same-store sales dropped by more than 20% in the second quarter of 2012.
If there is a glimmer of hope for JCPenney, it’s that one major part of the retailer’s dramatic makeover—the “Shops” store within a store concept—appears to be quite a hit with shoppers. As Reuters, the Dallas Morning News, and others have reported, the Shops that exist thus far are outperforming their surrounding stores with 20% higher sales.
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The plan, according to Johnson, is to have 100 of these different specialty boutique stores within larger JCPenney locations by 2015. Naturally enough for the Apple retail veteran, Johnson compared his vision for JCPenney with its new Shops—selling everything from Levi’s to Liz Claiborne, candy to coffee—to an iPhone. “All those boutiques are the apps,” he said. “What J.C. Penny is creating is a new interface.” As for the old “interface,” the one that is still found at malls around the country, it now appears to be about as cool and useful as a flip-open “dumb” cell phone.
“We’re not here to improve, we’re here to transform,” Johnson told analysts, according to the Dallas Business Journal. And the CEO appears to truly mean it.
The chain aims to “ditch the ‘old lady’ store perception,” in the words of the Dallas Business Journal, and Johnson said, “We’ve got to get a younger customer.” To do so, JCPenney has already gotten rid of its old pricing systems. As a result, it’s also gotten rid of many of its old customers. With the rollout of the Shops, it has started to replace its old merchandise, too. Heck, JCPenney even has plans to get rid of checkout counters.
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At some point, it might be worth asking whether all of this whole-hog “transformation” makes much sense and is worth the effort. In some ways, it might be easier to just launch an entirely fresh and new department store from scratch, rather than attempt to drag a 110-year-old brand into the future.
Even if such an epic transformation is possible, there’s a concern that, in light of continued lagging overall sales, JCPenney won’t have the time to wait for Johnson’s vision to become a reality. Some analysts are skeptical that the transformation can occur within a reasonable timeframe, per Bloomberg News:
“I like the story, but you are talking 2014 before the concept is in place enough for it to really figure,” Noel Hebert, chief investment officer of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania- based Concannon Wealth Management LLC, said today in an e-mail. “Right now, your store-within-a-store brands/boutiques are doing well, but are not large enough to move the needle.”
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JCPenney’s stock price spiked briefly on Wednesday after Johnson’s guided tour of the new-new JCPenney, but shares then tanked on Thursday, dipping 10%. As the Wall Street Journal explained, the feeling seems to be that JCPenney of today is still too much like the JCPenney of old, and the much-hyped transformation just isn’t occurring quickly enough:
“J.C. Penney is taking steps in the right direction, but the road to recovery is still a few years away,” Deutsche Bank said in a note to clients. “As for the stock, after a massive move in the past five weeks, we think some of the air needs to come out of the proverbial bubble as reality sets in.”
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.