An open letter to JCP: Come back to the future, return to the downtown

  • Posted: Saturday, January 19, 2013 1:34 a.m.

Ron Johnson
Chief executive officer

JC Penney
Plano, Texas
Dear Mr. Johnson,


Greetings from Salisbury, N.C. You may not know it, but JC Penney has been doing business in Salisbury (pop. 33,000) since 1941. Your first store was located at 306 S. Main St., and this downtown location expanded in 1958.

From the beginning, Penney has been a great corporate citizen here.

With the flight of major retailers from most downtowns, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, JC Penney joined others in leaving Salisbury’s central business district for a new mall location.

This happened in 1986.
As the nature of retailing goes, that same mall is not as vibrant as it once was. Belk — you probably heard of this retail chain — will be closing its store at the mall later this year and moving to a strip retail center near Interstate 85. That will leave JC Penney as the only original anchor store.

Forgive my meddling into your business, but I anticipate JC Penney will face a decision in the near future as to what it should do with its Salisbury location. Stay at the struggling mall? Follow Belk again to the new I-85 shopping center? Leave Salisbury for good?

I now come to the reason for my letter. I want JC Penney to consider a move back to the future. Return to our downtown. I will try to make my case later, but first allow me to review a few things.

As a former executive with Apple and Target, you must be a man willing to take chances. About a year ago, you led the major overhaul of JC Penney’s approach to retailing. You went with “fair and square” low prices, instead of constantly bombarding customers with sales and coupons.

You essentially changed the name and logo of the company to “JCP” and brought on Ellen Degeneres as a national spokesperson — a bold move in itself, but one of which I approved.

It’s interesting to note that some of your in-store merchandising has included “Main Street” shops and “Town Square” services. No matter how big, every retailer likes to think of itself as representing small-town America.

I have read elsewhere that JC Penney, in its much earlier days, was known as “America’s Favorite Store.”

The founder, the late James Cash Penney, left the business world many axioms to live by. One in particular said, “Success cannot come from standstill men. Methods change, and men must change with them.”

I’m sorry to see that JCP’s new pricing and branding strategy has not necessarily taken hold, though I think it could if consumers understood that, yes, Penney was offering the best prices on quality merchandise.

Your company shares took a 7 percent drop last week alone, as analysts predict your fourth-quarter sales and earnings report won’t be a good one. Over the holidays, they have said, JCP’s same-store sales were down as much as 30 percent from the previous year.

Of course, you know these numbers better than I do.

But back to this strange suggestion to move your Salisbury store back to our little downtown. I think it’s the kind of bold idea that would not just work in Salisbury, but could be the foundation for JC Penney’s rebirth as an iconic American retailer.

Bear with me. I know our city officials and downtown merchants would move heaven and earth to have a retailer of your stature back as a downtown anchor. What I’m saying is, you would receive incentives, as though you were a new industry.

Also, whatever downtown renovation you were a part of would qualify for historic district tax credits, which are considerable, and I’m sure the rent you eventually would pay would be less than some box out on the interstate.

But these considerations are secondary to what you would be demonstrating to Salisbury as a company. You would be saying, “Here we are, a century-old American firm that still holds to the small-town values that made it great — values that made it “America’s Favorite Store.”

By returning again to part of your past, JCP would be an innovator, not a follower. You also would be leading the rebirth of middle American downtowns where more people are wanting to live, shop, dine, attend events and have the feeling they are part of a community again.

It’s not just me saying this. You know companies such as Walmart and Target are moving back to downtowns, only in much bigger cities. But there’s open, fertile ground in smaller towns such as Salisbury — towns which have always been big enough for JC Penney.

Again, let me reiterate: Your company has been in Salisbury for 72 years.

How trendy would it be to shop at the downtown JCP? I say quite trendy, and you can’t put a price on all the goodwill and support you would receive from your fellow businesses downtown. By the way, there are more places downtown than at the mall.

I hate to put it this bluntly, but is it trendy now to shop at most of your JCPs? Again, you know better than I do.

I know this type of move would cause a major shift in the way you do business, and it may be too late. I hope not. If you want to use Salisbury as a test case, I’m sure we would be willing.

If anything, we’re fair and square.

All my best,
Mark Wineka
Salisbury, NC

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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