Suddenly, and not very surprisingly, there seems to be a continuous rash of executive firings at JC Penney.  It is likely that any company experiencing harsh financials at a time when Wall Street is thriving would have to consider considerable executive turnover.  Contemplating the disastrous year JCP recently completed, high level executive change was inevitable.  In this case however, the specifics of the turnover are pointed and are sharply aimed at execs hired by the visionary that the recently deposed Ron Johnson seemed to embody.

Massive executive change brings to mind a JCP store visit which revealed several management shortcomings, as detailed in a CSG Insight last month.  Now a visit to a second Penney’s store brings additional concerns to light.

The previously visited Penney’s store had posted an entire section of a wall with a unified photo display previewing what the coming Martha Stewart department/store will look like.  It was marked, ‘Coming Spring 2013’.  The display invited shoppers to get a preview of MarthaCelebrations at the JCP website.

Viewing this came as a surprise as the back and forth preliminary rulings continued to anticipate a final decision during the contentious courtroom proceedings between JCP, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. and Macy’s.  A ruling just prior to this visit, stated that at least until a final decision is issued or another appeal is answered, Penney’s could proceed to sell a line of Martha Stewart home goods under the “JCP Everyday” label.

The second Penney’s location features MarthaCelebrations actually operating as more of a barely noticeable department than a store within a store, with little signage.  Most of what is offered is essentially disposable party ware.  Packs of eight paper plates cost $3.50 to $4.50.  Eight paper hot/cold cups run the same price.  The website notes both these products are of paper made in America.  Plastic champagne flutes run $10 for a set of four.  The JCP website notes specifically that the plastic is imported.  Last month in the court proceedings, Macy’s attorneys had protested the MarthaCelebrations line while JCP lawyers wondered why worry about essentially disposable products.

At a nearby Dollar Tree, glass flutes run the standard dollar a piece or ten for $10 for those desiring to burn ten dollars (of course you can reuse these so it isn’t really burning money). Needless to say paper plates and cups and even plastic plates, cups and flutes at the Dollar Tree represent a far better value if you don’t require a celebrity name behind them.  Same goes for similar wares at a nearby Target.

Traveling randomly through this Penney’s housewares department, signage was at least as confusing as it was at the previous Penney’s store.  The ample department was loaded with price signs that did not seem to reflect most, if not all, of the surrounding wares.  One sign in clearance featured a large $1 alongside a diminutive and up.  On close examination, there was a single item for a dollar.  Most of the many other local items were considerably higher in price.  This seems far from signage that would be deemed ‘fair and square’, a bedrock promotional term of the Johnson administration.  This seemed to be more like a bait and switch.

Another table sign indicated a tall $150.  There was nothing on the table that should have nearly approximated even a hundred dollars.  As some products were not marked, it was difficult to be sure.  A nearby table sign offered an even higher price and seemed even more obviously out of touch.

One couple trying to shop the housewares section looked at each other with grins of frustration and loudly shared the notion that determining prices here was a challenge.   A family had to wait for an associate to search the storage area only to be told that no one could find stock in the product they were seeking.  They weren’t pleased but seemed patient and understanding.

Further browsing in housewares revealed a section that could be deemed ‘designer lamps’.  These items are relatively pricey and come adorned with the names of fairly prominent designers of housewares.  Somewhat surprisingly, there were offerings here with tags bearing the name Martha in the unmistakable type and colors representing Ms. Stewart.  They didn’t seem to indicate anything about “JCP Everyday”.  Their stated prices ranged from $195- $250.

During back and forth court proceedings leading into this month, a judge issued the latest ruling stating that JC Penney could sell certain Martha Stewart designed goods under the “JCP Everyday” label.  This, at least until an appeal by Macy’s is decided. A ruling on appeal could come at any time.  Ultimately, a final decision could set everything aside.

This of course is all part of the mammoth court proceedings brought on by Macy’s against Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and JC Penney’s.  How then does JC Penney’s get to sell under the MarthaCelebrations banner or Martha labeled products at JC Penney’s?

A revisit to this store just a few days later revealed even more confusion.  Many displays offered no pricing signage.  One table was signed, ’Clearance $17 and up’.  Looking at the actual products, they had been marked down to $14.  Interestingly, a nearby display sign notes that prices which were originally $6 are now $4.99, an early indication that JCP may be moving away from Ron Johnson’s idea of offering all items at flat dollar prices ($15 rather than $14.99), as part of his ‘fair and square’ policy.

A mature couple frustratingly noted that many items did not indicate prices.  They finally asked a cashier how they could determine prices and were told to check at a central pole or bring the product to her to scan. The pole had a price scanner attached.  The couple seemed confused as many of these products are cumbersome to carry.  It likely seemed a chore to go back and forth to compare prices on like and large items.  Penney’s was supposedly instituting a system where floor personnel and cashiers would be freed to wander the aisles and actually transact sales with portable devices.  Apparently this has not been fully implemented as yet and wasn’t offered to the couple.

Sears has been a much maligned retailer in recent years.  Walking through a Sears located at the same mall as this Penney’s store revealed signage which was clear and bold and easy to read from a distance.  Many items were on sale anticipating Mother’s Day.  Reductions could easily be noted from a distance and all products seemed well signed and easy to glance.

When Myron “Mike” Ullman was brought back by the JCP board, to replace his former successor Ron Johnson, many wondered why bring back someone who had been replaced less than a year and a half earlier. While he faced considerable challenges in his previous administration, he must now additionally decide how to manage in the middle of a very costly, total store do-over which was not in any way a part of his decision or implementation process.  And then there is the much publicized battle in court over what if anything can be sold from Martha Stewart.