JCPenney's Christmas Pin Program: Channel Ping-Pong

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JCPenney is in the midst of an aggressive holiday promotion in which shoppers are encouraged to take coded buttons from store associates and, perhaps, win prizes including giftcards, a vacuum cleaner or a coffeemaker. The "Merry Christmas, America" campaign, though, suffers from two key flaws: reverse merged-channel-itis, where customers need to awkwardly go through multiple channels to find out whether they've won anything, and no opportunity within these unnecessary but mandatory channel-hops for shoppers to actually buy anything.

Such flaws could be more easily overlooked were this a minor promotion that no one has focused on. But stickers for Merry Christmas, America adorn almost every door to JCPenney stores, and it involves almost every associate and customer-service desk. The idea is that customers ask associates for some holiday-themed pins (three to a customer at any one time seems to be the rule). The back of the pin has a sticker with seven numbers and letters on it.

The easy approach would be to peel off the sticker to determine a prize or to enable a quick scan of a barcode or QR code to reveal the same. Instead, the shopper needs to go a campaign-specific URL (which is not written on the pin but happens to be jcp.com/christmas). The code is entered on the site, but the customer isn't then told if he or she has won anything. No, that information only comes through a third hop, when an E-mail arrives.

The strategy behind merged-channel is to encourage whichever channel is most convenient and attractive for the shopper. If some shoppers are most likely to shop via the E-Commerce site or the mobile site versus in-store, then, by all means, encourage that. This JCP program, however, forces customers to go to a store, and they must do so from November 23 through December 24—when the stores are likely to be the most crowded. Had this been a program to get shoppers into stores in late August, that might have made more sense. But pushing customers who would rather shop online to go into stores during the most crowded weeks?

Assuming the goal is to get customers in-store, why send them off to the Web site and then only inform them via E-mail, with likely stops in the land of spam/junk-mail filters? Other than collecting E-mail addresses (which can certainly be obtained with less effort), what's the point?

By the way, if the program's terms and conditions are to be believed, the chain has prohibited itself from even using those E-mail addresses for retail purposes. "The information you provide will only be used for purposes of administering this Promotion, including winner notification and gift award," the T&C say. Then again, the T&C later contradicts that statement by saying: "By entering this Promotion, you are opting in to receive additional E-mail and/or mail communications from JCP, its affiliates and licensees."

One good point would be if the landing page was designed to help customers find great items within JCPenney. This would be especially true if the shopper is accessing that site via a mobile device while still inside that JCPenney store, perhaps even while riding JCPenney's Wi-Fi network.

Alas, under the "huge opportunity squandered" category, neither the mobile nor Web site versions of the campaign landing page seems to even acknowledge that JCPenney sells stuff for a living.

Beyond clean functionality to check whether the number entered is a winner, the page is adorned with a series of Christmas tree images made up of lots of pins, none of which are clickable. Could JCP have had each pin represent a compelling product and then enable customers to click through to descriptive pages? Apparently not, because the pages show neither products nor any meaningful links to such products.

By the way, the chain opted to notgo politically correct, labeling the campaign for Christmas—as in "Merry Christmas, America." That's cool. But why, then, does the tree have a Dreidel? Once JCP used a Christmas label, we think the boat sailed on trying to include Jewish customers.

Getting back to the site, shoppers can do virtually nothing beyond arrive, type in a number (and fill out a form) and leave. We tested this promotion using the JCPenney app on an iPhone riding a JCPenney Wi-Fi network, and there was no functionality to enable the app to understand that we were standing inside a physical JCPenney store. Had a halfway decent promotion been offered, walking 40 feet to see it would have been hard to resist. And yet, the app seemed oblivious as to where we were, despite the many clues. Another opportunity lost.The campaign seems to be strongly physical-store centric, which is fine as a way to show off the new JCPenney attributes. The promotion, though, makes no attempt to do that. It's not as though shoppers were asked to visit some of the stores within the store and to collect buttons there. The JCPenney we visited was within a mall, and we witnessed quite a few mall shoppers step inside JCPenney, take a handful of pins and then walk right back into the mall to continue non-JCP shopping.

Even the little card that the chain issues with the pins reflects an oddly unrealistic view of a store-centric mentality: "Come to JCP every day through Christmas Eve for more buttons, while supplies last, and more chances to win gifts." Acknowledging that marketing copy is, by design, over the top, we still need to ask if the idea is truly for shoppers to have to go back to the store "every day." After that first day, why couldn't they resubmit twice a day (the limit) solely on the Web site or via mobile? That's still encouraging daily interaction with the brand, in a less-ludicrous manner.

Then there are the terms and conditions. Nothing is more refreshing than reading a chain's marketing copy ("shopping here is easier than breathing oxygen and better than great sex") and then reading its legal copy ("that's not funny. And put that down right now").

You think it's hard for customers to determine if they've won? Check out what they must do if they have won and have the audacity to try and collect their prize. Courteously, most casual shoppers will be spared that hardship, as the odds of winning run from eight-to-one for a $5 or $10 gift certificate (good only to purchase $5 or $10 items, as opposed to those dollars off larger purchases) to 81,000-to-one for a $500 gift certificate to 618,321-to-one for winning an $8,000 Great American Vacation Grand Prize. A pair of VIP tickets to a taping of The Ellen DeGeneris Show comes with odds of 27 million-to-one. And then there are the reallyhard to win prizes—including 81 million-to-one odds against winning a two-slot toaster.

Wait. Customers are literally a hundred times more likely to win an $8,000 vacation than to win a $60 toaster? In fact, several sub-$100 prizes have longer odds than the contest's big-money "grand prizes." Has anyone at JCPenney ever actually run a contest like this before? This isn't the place to dump a few leftover clearance items.

If they're lucky enough to beat the odds, customers have to complete a gift claim form within 48 hours of receiving their winning notification. Hopefully, it doesn't get stuck in a spam filter for too long. (We are reminded of a favorite line from an early Simpsonsepisode, where Homer is given 24 hours to live by Dr. Hibbert. "24 hours?!" "Well, 22. I'm sorry I kept you waiting so long."

Winners are given the option of uploading a photo, which would be displayed "on the JCP tree." The T&C then adds, cryptically, "New York and Tennessee residents are not allowed to upload a photograph." It's probably due to state law, but 'tis a wise move regardless.

Under another missed opportunity, buried in the middle of the T&C is a nice holiday-themed reason for shoppers to participate in this promotion, but good luck finding it: "Salvation Army Donation: For each Code entered into the Web site on November 27, 2012 (CT), JCP will donate $1 to The Salvation Army, up to a maximum donation of $100,000." Why not tout thaton every piece of signage for the promotion? "If you enter, even if you don't win, you've still made a difference this holiday season."

The very last line of the T&C is another baffler: "Apple is not a participant in or sponsor of the Promotion." That certainly seems to be the case, given that neither Apple nor any Apple product or service is in any way mentioned or referenced. (Smells like a cut-and-paste from a template for another promotion where Apple was involved. Either that or JCPenney's lawyers now periodically throw in the names of random companies that are not involved in things.) Given the details of this promotion, though, it doesn't seem like JCPenney was that active a participant, either.