The Kicker

The Kicker

"After spending our lives selling sheets and shoes, why did we ever think we could sell brown goods?"

Seibert smiled at Neppl and said, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

In the late 1970s the two men were presiding over the beginning of the end of the "all everything" full-line store, the place where one could get a lube job while picking out a wedding gown and a bowling ball. One-stop shopping made sense in the 1960s when America was under-stored. But now the sell-through on appliances, electronics, paint and hardware, sporting goods, and automotive just wasn't competitive with Penney's traditional soft goods ”merchandise the company did know how to buy and sell better than anyone . And the consumer was signaling a swing to specialty merchandise with deep assortments. Penney research finally identified this as a wave to catch in the future. It would take years , but "America's department store" would jettison most hardlines and return to an improved concentration on apparel, underwear, and soft home furnishings.

And it was decided that the repositioning to soft needed a kicker, something to make the change seem like a new era for Penney.

"Anyway," Neppl said, "Hoagy and some guys are working on this, working on a kicker."

"Before you tell me, do you like it?"

"It's different."

"Okay. So what is it?"



"Fashion." Both men were working to keep a straight face.

"You've got to be kidding."

"It's something we should look at."



"Uh, Walt," Seibert said quietly with a grin, "have you been in outer space?" Without saying it, he easily referred to the fact that Penney sold more polyester leisure suits and other unfashionable apparel than any three competitors combined.

"No, we should be getting into wool."

"Botany and Hart Marx would never sell to us."

"Then we develop our own brands." [5]

"We know nothing about wool."

"So what? We'll learn. We may not know brown goods, but apparel's in our blood."

"You're really serious."

"Just for a look."

Seibert, at heart, was as much of a merchant as Neppl, as much of an innovator. In Elmira he remodeled a basement room, sourced fabric and hardware, and developed a thriving drapery business at a time when the company offered no such merchandise. In Rochester, long on snow blowers at winter's end, he built a mass display near the entrance with prominent signage that said, "We Over-Bought! Long On Snow Blowers! LOOK! " The arrow pointed at the price (in the largest type). It was actually the normal markup, but they sold out in days. In the Levittown infant department, Seibert dressed a sales associate in nurse's whites and offered special layette packages made up from regular counter merchandise; the department set records.

So Seibert eventually bit on fashion.

But the world outside 1301 6th Avenue had its doubts . In 1977, McCaffrey-McCall became Penney's new advertising agency. Fashion specialists, McCaffrey-McCall, and account executive Peggy McMahon [6] tried to get the company to change its name . Seibert heard about this from executive Jack Rhiel, head of fashion promotion. "They lead up to it," Rhiel said, "and then Peggy hits it hard. We gotta change our name. I say, ˜Sorry, Peggy, we can'tdo that, millions trust that name and we can't. She then goes on and on about how McCaffrey-McCall spells fashion and how challenged they are. But that JCPenney spells polyester and commodity goods ”"

"Which is true," said Seibert.

" ”and we need a new name to make this thing work. ˜Sorry, again, Peggy. ˜But, Jack, she says, ˜you need a new image. ˜ Yes , I tell her. ˜ But . ˜Okay, she finally says. ˜I think this is a mistake, but, okay. We'll make the best of it. " Rhiel lowered his voice. "Should we drop them, Don?"

"No, they're just doing their job," said Seibert, a bit disquieted. "Tell her that. Tell her the name's just worth more than the fashion program."

Later, despite McCaffrey-McCall's good work, the business world remained skeptical.

Business Week made the question a cover story:

Can JCPenney Make the Transition?

The photo showed a woman 's legs from the knee down ”skirt of a silver sequined evening gown, silver pumps. But instead of hose, she wears white sweat socks.

The fashion program was an obviously slow sell (and to this day, fashion remains a challenge with the new Penney leadership as they centralize buying and improve the presentation of trendier apparel). Seibert finally left it to Neppl and the others. In his last two years before retiring , he became quietly obsessed with a problem that he saw as central to the company's very survival.

[5] Penney did develop its own comparatively upscale brands for men and women, an arduous process that finally succeeded and caused the quality national brands to rethink JCPenney and sell to the company. ("JCPenney" was the retailer's new designation.)

[6] Long before the prefix became derogatory, they were known as the "McAgency" at watercoolers.

Celebration of Fools. An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
Celebration of Fools: An Inside Look at the Rise and Fall of JCPenney
ISBN: 0814471595
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 177
Authors: Bill Hare © 2008-2017.
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