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.

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Harry Gordon Selfridge

The Rundown: Good Stuff, Thomas Pink, CNN and More

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Food: The Good Stuff Eatery may find a home in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and China. In an interview with EATER, owner Spike Mendelsohn stated that “serious” meetings had taken place with various developers from those regions. But Micheline Mendelsohn tells us nothing is solid as of yet. “We are nowhere near closing any deals or locations,” she added. Arlington-based Elevation Burger and NYC-based Shake Shack already have locations in the Middle East.

Retail: British luxury shirt specialist Thomas Pink has opened a new store in Tyson’s Galleria.

Retail: TopShop has opened a flagship store in Los-Angeles. More U.S. locations are rumored including one at CityCenter D.C.

Media: Michael Homes joins Newsroom International as co-anchor, effective 2/18.

Media: Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis scolds the BBC and anchor Adnan Nawaz for inciting “technopanic.”

Retail: If Apple can an open a store in New-York City’s Grand Central Station, how about a location at the soon-to-be vacant Barnes & Noble space at Union Station?

Photo Credit: Thomas Pink

Most Beautiful Apple Store in THE WORLD

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God forbid if D.C. were to home to such spectacular architectural design. Members of the D.C. Fine Arts Commission or Old Georgetown Board would certainly faint at such a revolutionary Apple store being proposed in the Pacific Northwest. Luckily, Portland’s Design Commission has approved this elegant and striking design. Way to go, Portland! We always knew you had more progressive visionaries than D.C. did.

We caught up with Gary Allen who edits the IfoAppleStore website. We asked him which city will be home to the best-looking Apple store of the future; Aix-en-Provence or Portland, OR.

The Aix-en-Provence and Portland stores’ design seems to be similar. However, Aix-en-Provence is still a little “iffy.” I haven’t heard any further confirmation of the store or its design. On the other hand, Portland is a definite “go.”

For that reason, and because Portland will literally be one block wide (with 165 feet of glass), I’d vote for Portland. I’d also point out that it breaks new architectural ground for Apple’s retail chain, as well as retail in general. There are no stores that look like it now anywhere, either smaller or on the same scale. The store will also be a major contribution to Portland’s architectural stock and will, like other Apple stores, create a major destination for the city.

It’s significant that Apple’s architects took the rear of an existing interior mall that was making no visual or cultural contribution to the cityscape, and turned it into something so spectacular. When the design was first presented to the city’s Design Commission, several members had mostly-minor objections to the architecture. But it was clear that the group would never turn down such an enriching building for their city.

Photo Credit: Gary Allen/BCJ

Is American Retail on the Decline?

There are some bright spots in the American retailing industry. Target. Apple. Nordstrom. Urban Outfitters. But by-and-large, the industry is on the decline for a number of reasons. Foreign competition, lack of innovation, and consumer dissatisfaction. Just over 25 percent of consumers are unhappy with store choices today, according to ARG.

This week, Japan’s Uniqlo opened a mega store in the heart of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue corridor and promised to open an additional 200 stores in the U.S. market; a direct challenge to Gap, Inc. American retailers are playing defense, while their overseas arms are going on the offense – opening in new markets such as the Middle East, South America, and China where their properties look appealing and are in much better condition than their U.S. counterparts. This does not bode well for us Yanks. JC Penney, an iconic retailer during its heyday, is trying to revive sales by assembling a powerful team of retail experts. But it remains to be seen what magic these magicians can conjure up. Daily Finance asked “Will JC Penney Be the Next Target.” We doubt it. This is one herculean task that may be impossible to achieve. Target built its brand from the ground up just like Apple. JC Penney already has an image and recalibrating could be disastrous. It is best they focus on the department stores’ strengths and work on areas that are essential to remain competitive; pricing, customer service, and providing a decent store experience.

Craig Johnson, president of retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners, suggests JC Penney could add groceries. This would be a game-changer move. No department store in the United States offers this service. And consumers will always be in need of food. In the U.K, John Lewis and Marks & Spencers offer “food halls” where store branded food & drink products are paired with national brands. Ironically, Marks & Spencers suffered from declining sales and a staid image amongst the British public. But new management turned that around despite a sizable offer from TopShop’s Phillip Green. A new look by Urban Salon Architects also changed the way the Brits thought about their beloved “M&S.” Game-changing moves are essential for JC Penney and all American retailers to remain competitive. The question is – do they have the guts to execute?

Photos: Courtesy of M&S Media