Three Reasons Why JCPenney’s Latest Strategy Won’t “Check Out”

Sorry, but I have to continue my JCPenney rant. I didn’t gloat when they admitted that their strategy to de-coupon the stores was a failure. Or when more top level folks gave up their mission to coolify. But today’s news that CEO Johnson is planning to rid the stores of those pesky cash registers and ‘expensive’ cashiers at checkout just can’t go unnoticed.


Let’s start with checkout. While every retailer likes to brag, “We want to be a destination store,” instead they ought to promise, “We want to be the evacuation store.” Once women have given a retailer their precious time, they want to get the heck out of there as fast as possible. With the exception of the apple store and maybe anthropologie (where we pretend we are adopting a languid, poetic lifestyle!), women want to bolt and get on with their day.


Now it’s true that some mass retailers have taught customers to accept self-checkout. But JCPenney, the store for women who are already doing it all, isn’t WalMart or apple and anthro-anything. And I predict that while someday we may all be asking our mobile phones to talk to a kiosk, we are not all there yet and in this category, we expect more. Here’s why this I predict this initiative will be put in the slow lane within months.


The customer: Just a guess: the largest segment of JCPenney customers are women with a low to low/mid HH income, a more limited education, children to support and a technology repertoire that is more email and facebook than apps or code scanning. The loyal ones are likely older.  Just picture these women being asked to aim, scan, tap and tangle with tech when their kids’s humor is wearing thin or their tired feet are giving out.  At the first hiccup, I see them dropping the merch and heading out the door for good.


The product: I don’t care if I have to pack my own groceries, but clothes and the cute household decorations? Yeah, I’ve suffered through part-time clerks who stuff, wrinkle and ruin my discount finds in Marshall’s, but for the most part, I feel like the cashiers, pretty much all of whom are women, try. Because they’ve been there. What’s so special now about JCP (Who?) if they make you bag your new bought sheets and clothes and kids’ stuff like it’s off the back table of the dollar store. Even they have cashiers.


The experience: For the shoppers who go to Penney’s for a little treat, now the store is taking away one more customer service perk and replacing it with what? Maybe improved customer service that will cost them more because they either have to hire more trained people or spend more money training the ones they have…the ones, whose heads must be spinning by now with the changes that start and stop? We know that eventually, we will all be checking out alone, but for store whose hold on their best customers is so fragile, was this the only way to save 10% of costs?


Before the board allows Mr. Johnson to add another apple-esque idea to a store that doesn’t have apple’s customers, products, staff, environment, juice or core, can someone say it might be time for someone else, as smart as he is, to checkout?

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Are you talkin’ to me??

I was standing in the checkout line at GAP yesterday and in the mix of the hustle and bustle of the shoppers, heard someone crooning something once, then twice, until I finally looked up and realized the cashier was summoning me with the liquid-y new lingo pilfered from Target, “Following guest?” Huh? Believe me, I am as rabid a line stander as anyone and wouldn’t miss the chance to hurry to the register but after so many years of being shouted at with “NEXT CUSTOMER!”, I was tone deaf to this gentle invitation to step forward. It happened again at another mass outlet and I watched the customer in front of me stand silently like a car that doesn’t respond to a green light. So, the cashier re-announced, a little louder, “Following guest, please”. But it’s hard to yell that phrase, so still no action.

We’re not used to being talked to as guests after retailers spending years training us to respond to “NEEEEXXXTTT!”.  But it seems that this holiday season, with every dollar on the line, stores are not only offering discounts, they’re extending courtesy. Wow. What a concept. Hope it sticks if things pick up!

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Another Take on the “Holiday” Hot Potato

A couple of weeks ago, Jen weighed in on the controversy around the new GAP holiday advertising, casting her Yea! in favor of its inclusive language. Today, I saw a new seasonal spot for Bloomingdale’s and I’d like to give them a shout out too.

Their line is “Happy, Merry, Peace, Love” which I love because it doesn’t default to the bland and to me, pretty meaningless Happy Holiday. Lately, even long weekends seem to merit, “Have a great holiday” draining the juice out of the word for good.

While calling out Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza leaves folks out, I have to admit that every time I say “Happy Holiday”, I am telling a Half Truth. To me, the phrase excludes and erases any relevance for a time of year that means lots to lots of us, even it means nothing to some. With Bloomie’s clever and crowd-pleasing line, anyone can fill in their own blanks and find their own meaning. And if nothing else, on the day of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize, it’s hard to argue with “peace” and “love.”

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A P.S to the Shopping Weekend of the Year

So, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are now history. While brick and mortar retailers might not see the results as history-making, their online counterparts can throw a little confetti. Yet, it seems our survey and projections about women were right on the money—that they were willing to show up for the bargains, but hesitant to lay down their dollars. Women who professed the Half Truth of wanting to preserve their family’s traditions showed their Whole Truth at the cash register. And so much for heartfelt tradition, since spouses were the first to go on her shopping list.

The discounts will get more and more tempting as the key dates near, but unfortunately, it may be too little inventory, too late to entice her. Already popular sites are showing ‘out of stock’ warnings. Without the temptation of good choices near season’s end, and with cash running low, she may just resolve that she doesn’t want to start the new year with credit card debt and simply shut down her inner Santa altogether.

So, I predict that this year will be history-making after all. This Holiday 2009 women won’t hide their Whole Truths as they light the candles or gather round the tree: instead they’ll brag about how much they saved and deals they scored and share how content they are to go without since their husbands reciprocated with the ‘no spouse gift exchange policy’….whoops, Half Truth alert!

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GAP Got the Holidays!

Watch GAP’s Holiday Ad

This post comes with a disclaimer.  I am Jewish. I’m not particularly religious but I am culturally observant (and that doesn’t just mean I get to tell the jokes, eat the food and use Yiddish words). The December holiday season has always been a bit of a sore spot for me because I have always felt left out of the big party.  Everything is red and green and decorated so beautifully and the parties and family gatherings are so wonderful but I’ve always been on the outside looking in.  Hanukah is lovely too but it isn’t a big deal on the spectrum of Jewish holidays. I know that there is the whole 8 nights of presents thing but as a kid my parents gave me things like pencils on 6 out of 8 of them.  (I actually went to Michael’s Craft Store this weekend looking for Hanukah decorations to get my kids excited and there was one measly end cap with plastic junk.)

But this holiday GAP’s new advertising made me feel like I was part of Holiday Fever.  I loves the new ads because they shook off some of the recession depression and also because their Cheer campaign actually said the word Hanukah! It was sad to hear that the American Family Association isn’t such a big fan of inclusion and called for a boycott (since put on hold) of GAP because the work didn’t emphasize Christmas enough for their liking.  [They put the boycott on the back burner because there is an Old Navy spot in the pipeline that says Christmas enough.]

“As a gesture of our ‘goodwill to men,’ we have decided to suspend our boycott of Gap and its divisions until we see the content of this new commercial,” said Bryan Fischer, the AFA’s director of issues analysis, in a statement. “We firmly believe that Gap is responding to an enormous amount of pressure from the AFA network. It looks like Gap has finally decided that a recession is a bad time to take a principled stand on secularism and alienate a huge percentage of their customer base. We’re happy that they’re apparently keeping Christ and Christmas in the Christmas season.”

My condolences to Crispin Porter + Bogusky who made some really great and inclusive ads only to be punished for the same reason.

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NPR Marketplace: Are Marketers Reaching Out to Women?

Hear Mary Lou share women’s Half Truths with Stacey Vanek-Smith on NPR Marketplace today

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Advertising Age: Women’s Hidden Holiday Secrets

Our recent survey to more than 2,000 women revealed some pretty dramatic half truths and whole truths for today’s Advertising Age.

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July 24, 2024
by Mary Lou Quinlan

A look at an early production of WORK


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The God Box Goes Global!

“The God Box” has grown to include an app, audio book, philanthropic venture and solo show performed by Mary Lou across the US. Now The God Box Project goes global to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
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