JCPenney Wise or Pound Foolish?


For the few of us left who long for the simpler world of yesterday, the world of printed books, music recordings you could hold in your hand, and teenagers who respected authority and treated their elders with courtesy not contempt, the recent news concerning changes at JCPenney was another nail in the coffin of civilized American society.

Ron Johnson, CEO of JCPenney, says he wants to eliminate the employees who stand at cash registers and get rid of traditional checkout by the end of 2013. He would like to see mobile checkout and self checkout. According to the former Apple retail wizard, the stores will be 100 percent RFID (radio frequency identification) and Wi-Fi enabled.

When this happens customers won’t have to wait in lines anymore, supposedly making things more convenient and reducing their time in stores. But this also suggests that there will be more job cuts, since those cashiers won’t be needed anymore. Clearly, Ron Johnson’s experience running Apple stores will influence JCPenney’s operations. The stores would operate much like the Apple stores do on the selling floor.

The news went on to report that during the transformation period currently underway, cash registers will be eliminated and sales associates will be able to complete a transaction on-the-spot with special iPhones or iPads. Self-checkout locations in each store will augment the on-the-spot sales by associates. Mr. Johnson feels that these moves will save money given JCPenney currently spends somewhere around $500 million on transactions.

Changes such as these are all about increasing the bottom line of course, but the mantra is always that “it will make things easier for the customer.” There is truth to that claim, but it still doesn’t make the total experience any more pleasant, in my opinion. For the past fifty years or so, the choice in retail has been convenience over customer service. I for one miss the customer service, which once was commonplace in retail stores, although I can understand that most people, given a choice, will go for convenience every time.

The question is, do you want it easier and cheaper or do you want it more pleasant and more personal? Our society in general has been making it easier and cheaper, not making it more pleasant and more personal for a long time now. A case in point is social media, which is really more like antisocial media. It is easier to “post” a note on Facebook than it is to pick up a phone and talk to a person one-on-one.

One-on-one interaction, whether it is in a retail store or in our personal communications is quickly becoming a relic of the past. It takes more of an effort to “talk” directly with someone, than it does to “text” and then move on. When you actually talk to a person it requires a back-and-forth of ideas and thoughts, but with texting or tweeting you can say what you want to say and then get off without having to hear the other person’s response.

There are more ways to communicate today and yet we are doing less of it then ever before. Take business calls for example; in the old days you called a business and a person at that business answered the phone. You may not get through to the particular person you want to speak with right then, but at least you had the satisfaction of speaking with a living human being who gave you some sort of an answer. Now you call a business and after several minutes of working your way through a menu of multiple languages and choices, you leave a message on automated voice mail. Since you’ve never spoken with a real person, you never know if anyone actually received your message. It can always be denied that your message even got through.

Whippersnappers today don’t know what it was like to walk into a nice store and be treated with friendliness and respect by the salesclerks. The better places knew how to make a customer feel good about himself. They spent time with you and best of all, they knew their merchandise. They were there to sell stuff, sure, but in so doing they were building relationships with customers. That was shopping communication.

I grant you that JCPenney has not had that level of customer service in decades and neither have most other stores. But this latest change is just one more step away from the full-service “customer is always right” world of retail. It was a more civilized world then. I’m saddened to see it go.

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