Is Simplicity a Winning Strategy?

If such an award existed, Ron Johnson would be a Hall of Famer retailer. He was instrumental in making Apple Stores what they are today – the biggest sales per sq ft of retail space and a wake up call for the rest of the retail industry. Now he is the CEO at J C Penney and he’s shaking things up there.

Mr. Johnson is currently meeting the media, rolling out his new strategy for J C Penney (the video interview is worth watching). There’s a new brand identity, a major redesign of stores which will now be organized around stores-within-stores for major brands. But the thing that struck me as particularly bold and perhaps risky was a fundamental change in pricing strategy.

J C Penney is moving to what they call “Fair and Square” pricing. There will no longer be the deep discount sales that its customers have come to expect.

Why are they doing this? In Mr. Johnson’s words

Pricing is actually a pretty simple and straight forward thing. Customers will not pay literally a penny more than the true value of the product. And as I have been watching the department stores for the past decade, I have been struck by the extraordinary amount of promotional activity, which to me, didn’t feel like it was appropriate for a department store. My instinct was that it wasn’t a good thing.

Last year J C Penney had 590 sales events. A whopping 72% of their sales came from merchandise discounted at least 50%.

From this, they are moving to where there will be only three kinds of prices – Everyday, Month-long Value (back to school type sales) and Best Prices (clearance).

This is a pretty gutsy move.

An HBR blog post is down on the timing of this strategy and thinks Penney should wait for when its new brand and stores vision has been fulfilled.

Quite simply, J.C. Penney lacks the differentiation to make this pricing strategy successful. J.C. Penney’s products are fairly homogenous. When selling a relatively undifferentiated product, the only lever to generate higher sales is discounts. Even worse, if competitors drop prices on comparable products, J.C. Penney’s hands are tied — it is a sitting duck that can’t respond.

In my opinion the new pricing strategy is an inherent part of the new J C Penney strategy and can’t be disassociated from the store makeover and the new brand identity.

Undoubtedly this is a risky gambit. But is it the right strategy? At the heart of it, the new pricing strategy is about simplicity.

Customers like simple, stable pricing. A busy housewife would love to be able to do her shopping at the Penney store near her place of work on weekdays, instead of fighting for parking space at the mall near her home on the weekend when the sales are on. When she is in the store, she can confidently buy any product with the assurance that its price isn’t going to be halved the next sale.

There is another aspect to simple pricing that Penney won’t be able to control and that is to ensure that prices on merchandise are the same everywhere. Apple does this very well on their products. When I buy from Apple online or in an Apple store, I am pretty certain that I don’t need to do any comparison shopping on the internet.

Customers like simple pricing. But they also like low prices. We don’t know where Penney’s prices will end up, but if 72% of merchandise is sold at 50% or more off full price, we can safely say that there is a lot of headroom below full price. Will that be enough to keep their customers or not is the key question. How they withstand the pressure of weekend sales from competing department stores must be giving sleepless nights to Penney executives.

After years of weekend sales, customers now expect them. They expect to see those flyers in their mailboxes with astonishingly low prices. How will Penney pull in the customers? Local marketing will probably have to completely change.

Besides the fact that customers like simple pricing, there are other benefits to having a simple pricing strategy. Highly volatile prices create highly volatile demand. Volatile demand creates its own set of problems. From store work force scheduling to inventory management. High volatility in demand results in either stock outs or higher inventory costs or both.

The fact is that simplicity in product and pricing results in simpler business operations.

Take Southwest Airlines for instance. From an earlier post The Virtue of Simplicity

Southwest Airlines is a company that I truly admire. The genius of SouthwestAirlines is in how they have become the most important airlines in the US by simplifying it for their passengers and for themselves. In the morass of complexity that is the American airlines industry, Southwest Airlines is a shining beacon of hope. Not only is their pricing dead simple, everything about the airlines is that way. They fly only Boeing 737s. This simplifies, crew scheduling, training, aircraft maintenance and spares. They have only one class – coach class. There is no seat assignment. It’s first come first serve [Update: This has changed but in a uniquely Southwest fashion]. And their frequent flier program is a tribute to simplicity – 8 round trips and you get a free roundtrip to anywhere they fly.

I hope J C Penney is successful with ‘Fair and Square’. Taking a leaf out of the book of their neighbor in Dallas – Southwest Airlines – might be just what the retailer needs.

And then we shall hope that this might inspire banks, telcos and cable companies to adopt simpler pricing strategies. And pigs will fly.

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(Cross-posted @ 6 AM Pacific)

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Basab Pradhan is the CEO of CliQr Technologies, a Cloud Application Management Platform company. He writes about enterprise technology and services and other things on his mind at his blog 6 AM Pacific.