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JCPenney CEO: E-Commerce Is Going To Hit A Ceiling

July 25th, 2012

Still, Johnson’s most interesting revelation was that he thinks E-Commerce is overblown as a threat to stores. He believes it’s a reincarnation of the catalog fad of the 1980s.

“My take is that the physical store will have a permanent place, and it will vary by category,” Johnson said. “When I came out of Harvard Business School in the ’80s, stores weren’t going to work because the catalog was going to take over. What woman who’s working, who could sit there and read a catalog and call 1-800 and have it delivered to the door, would ever go to a store?”

He added, “The catalogs went through, in many ways, a small version of what the Internet did. After six or seven years, catalog had 7 percent of general merchandise retailing [and] stayed there. There were certain things that happened for that category that required you go to the store.”

Considering how much retail chains focus on E-Commerce as a channel—and fear pure-play E-tailers as competition—that sounds wildly optimistic. Maybe it’s not so unrealistic, though. The U.S. Commerce Department has tracked retail E-Commerce as a percentage of U.S. retail sales since 2003, when online was 1.6 percent of all retail. After nine years of a steady rise (except for flatlining for a year in the depths of the recession), as of Q1 2012. E-Commerce is at 4.9 percent of U.S. retail sales. That’s a pretty small tail to be wagging the in-store dog.

At the current rate, E-Commerce won’t hit that catalog-plateau point of 7 percent of sales until the end of 2017. And assuming nothing changes (which is a truly silly assumption), E-Commerce will eventually overtake in-store—in about 120 years.

That leaves a lot of running room for conventional stores.

Another lesson from catalogs that JCPenney learned even before Johnson arrived: When the chain killed its catalogs, it actually lost some E-Commerce sales, apparently because of customers who browsed the catalog and then went online to buy. Johnson also claimed on Wednesday that site-to-store represented as much as 40 percent of E-Commerce sales. It seems customers figured out merged-channel before most chains did.

So maybe there’s something to the idea that E-Commerce won’t hurt most chains that much (although that’s going to be a tough sell at Best Buy). Wi-Fi, RFID ticketing, all-mobile checkout and anti-showrooming measures will all help. But that’s only if Johnson is right—and lasts long enough to see those initiatives through.

That’s a long way from guaranteed. None of the in-store IT helps if the number of customers in the stores keeps dropping and sales continue to decline. Stock analysts have a long track record of having trouble understanding the complexities of multiple channels and strategies for dealing with them. And when stock prices droop badly enough, boards tend to whack the CEO.

If JCPenney’s stock keeps spiraling down and Johnson is replaced relatively soon—or even six months from now—the grand plans to rip out cashwraps and convert JCPenney into Apple-for-apparel could all become irrelevant.

Of course, any chain could switch CEOs—and thus direction—at any time. But right now, no one is particularly concerned about the long-term prospects for the CEOs of Amazon, Walmart or Target. It’s whoever is running Best Buy, JCPenney and maybe Walgreens that have something to be worried about.


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