Harry Gordon Selfridge and Ron Johnson: Retail Icons Met with Doubt

Jeremy Piven plays Harry G. Selfridge in the PBS drama “Mr. Selfridge.”

Harry Gordon Selfridge, an icon of the retail industry who founded the world-famous department store Selfridges, will soon come to life on television. “Mr. Selfridge” premieres at the end of this month on PBS and Entourage’s very-own Jeremy Piven will play the American-born retailer. JCPenney’s embattled CEO Ron Johnson will probably watch the show with intrigue and wonder if will he get his own show in a hundred years. Johnson takes inspiration from Selfridges for his JCP vision and while these two men may be separated by history, they have a lot in common.

Both are considered titans of the retail industry and have gone to great lengths to make shopping a pleasure instead of a dreaded chore. Like Selfridge – but for different reasons,  Johnson is facing intense scrutiny as sales at JCP have plunged; coupon-addicted customers bailed after he moved to an everyday pricing scheme. Consequently, loyal and elderly skewing consumers had no incentive to check out the uninspiring merchandise in the dated and deplorable stores which had not been updated since the opening days at Woodstock.

While radical plans to turn JCP into a consortium of branded “shops-within-a-shop” are moving along, sales continue to slide. There was no way Johnson could have manufactured a turnaround in four business quarters. JCP had excessive inventory that needed clearing. Ancient systems were being employed to manage the IT infrastructure. Excessive funds were being spent on promotions. And the company had a bloated workforce. Sounds like the Titanic was ready to sink. Unfortunately, Johnson jumped on when they were ready to hit the iceberg.

As a pioneer of the retail industry with his legendary stints at Target and Apple, Johnson can make JCP work despite his early mistakes. The current “shops” are already performing 20 percent above the rest of the old JCPenney store.  But the board must take the company private in order to give Johnson the time and breathing space needed to execute his vision. Investors are already calling for Johnson’s ouster. But what they fail to understand is that all the talent drawn to JCP because of Johnson and his initiatives will bail.


Harry Gordon Selfridge


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