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Can JC Penney be saved?
Last year was the worst in the department store chain's 111-year history. Is it time for CEO Ron Johnson to give up on his turnaround plan?
JC Penney shareholders are hoping the sinking company has nowhere to go but up.
JC Penney shareholders are hoping the sinking company has nowhere to go but up. Scott Olson/Getty Image
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C Penney's stock nosedived this week after the struggling department store chain reported surprisingly bad quarterly results that capped the worst slump in the company's 111-year history. In fact, Henry Blodget said at Business Insider that, with same-store sales plummeting by nearly a third, Penney might have posted the worst quarter in retail history. Investors are clearly worried that CEO Ron Johnson's plan to turn around the company with new pricing and refreshed stores isn't working. "We made some big mistakes and I take personal responsibility for this," Johnson said.

Can anything save JC Penney now?

The company's "epic 32-percent nosedive" doesn't look like the beginning of the end, says Derek Thompson at The Atlantic. It "just looks like the end." And Johnson, who was hired away from Apple in 2011 to work miracles, is "captain of a sinking ship." But his strategy to "journey upmarket" and ditch coupons, simply offering consistently low prices, isn't to blame. "He was handed the Titanic when the dining room was already under water."

Ron Johnson might be a genius, but he's a genius at building shopping experiences for young, hip, upwardly mobile professionals. JC Penney's target audience is older, less hip, lower middle class moms and kids.

It's very likely the JC Penney could not have been saved by anything short of a presidential executive order that all mom jeans shall henceforth be purchased from JC Penney. [The Atlantic]

That's one way to look at it. Another is that it's always darkest before the dawn, and Johnson's top-to-bottom reorganization of the company was bound to be messy... and bound to some day start showing positive results. "This is a very long-term process that was never intended to take six months, a year, or even three," says Michael B. Lewis at The Motley Fool. "J.C. Penney is in the midst of a process normally reserved for privately held companies. It is completely reorganizing on every level of its structure." That's bound to be ugly at first. It's also very likely to get results, eventually. Buy the stock now, while it's down, because it's got (almost) nowhere to go but up.

Sales per square foot for J.C. Penney's old stores were $134. For the renovated stores, which still only feature a small sampling of what is to come, that number is $269 per square foot. That is a tremendous figure to support the success of these few but telling new store concepts. This spring, the company will transform 11 million square feet into the new format — 10 percent of the outstanding square footage... what will happen when the ratio of unrenovated to renovated space begins to even out and eventually sways in favor of the latter? [Motley Fool]

Corporate turnarounds are indeed difficult, says Steve Schaefer at Forbes, "and they take time. But ultimately management is evaluated on results, not ideas." Yes, his revamped stores are doing better than the old ones. Still, judging by sales numbers, his elimination of coupons discouraged some shoppers addicted to "the hunt" — who doesn't like to brag about getting something for 50 percent off? Bottom line: "If J.C. Penney keeps hemorrhaging red ink," Johnson's not going to have the money to expand his turnaround strategy to enough stores to save the company. At this point, even activist hedge funder Bill Ackman, a major Penney shareholder and Johnson's biggest fan, says the clock is ticking.

"We'll know by the end of this year," Ackman said, calling it a "tipping point." If the strategy isn't working — which [Ackman] defined as sales stabilizing — J.C. Penney will stop spending cash and rethink its options. The company "won't pour billions into a strategy that's not working," he said. [Forbes]

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