Nick Wooster, JCPenney's (NYSE: JCP) senior VP for product/design, was speaking last week at a Women's Wear Daily event and told an audience member, "I'm going to get in trouble for saying this, but [we need to] make cute sh*t." Now, if that was it, it wouldn't be that surprising. When people speak at conferences and they get into a lively question-and-answer session, they can sometimes slip into more informal speaking patterns and phrase things poorly.
But this story doesn't end there. An official JCPenney PR person, Sarah Holland, replied to a reporter asking about Wooster's comment with a written reply. That formal response? JCPenney "supports Nick and his vision for JCPenney to make cute sh*t." (And she used an "i" instead of an asterisk, to be explicit.)
The problem therefore is not an exec speaking loosely and using foul language. This has become an official position of JCPenney. The issue here, though, is not the roughness of the language. That word has a clear meaning, that being "low-quality." The phrase then translates to items of very little quality or high value but that have a superficial cuteness. Is that really the message JCPenney wants to send?
JCPenney used to have a powerful reputation of selling high-quality merchandise. Sometimes it would cost a little more than others — not always — but the workmanship that the brand represented was strong. Given that the chain is hard at work trying to lure those shoppers back, it's hard to imagine a worse phrasing for a public position statement, let alone one that a PR firmly embraces in a written statement.
For a broader context, here's Women's Wear Daily's full, attributed Wooster quote: "I'm going to get in trouble for saying this, but [we need to] make cute sh*t. If we have compelling product, people will come into the store. I firmly believe that's the job of merchants. Am I done yet?"
Let's hold off addressing the "Am I done yet?" comment. The "compelling product" point is absolutely appropriate and correct. Had he simply said that, there wouldn't be a problem. But that is completely undermined by the earlier phrasing. Had PR's statement referenced compelling product, there would again be no problem. But it focused on the other phrase.
By the way, note to retail execs: If you're speaking publicly and you feel the need to open a comment with "I'm going to get in trouble for saying this," that's a pretty big heads-up to change the subject.
As for "Am I done yet?", that's an interesting question being posed by the JCPenney chain in general. The answer is "No, not yet. But your cute sh*t comment is certainly getting you a lot closer."
- Women's Wear Daily story
- Huffington Post story, with the written PR statement quoted.