Among the avalanche of retail commentary Tuesday (April 9) morning about the JCPenney CEO switch, there was one comment that seemed to sum up the skeptical view about the switch and it came from Kevin Coupe at MorningNewsBeat. Coupe wrote: "It does make me wonder about JCP's board of directors. They hired one guy, didn't like his vision and implementation, so they fired him and hired another guy. Then, when that didn't work out, they hired back the old guy. Not sure here what the vision is. Or if there is any."
Not sure that's entirely fair. When the board parted ways with Ullman, JCPenney was not doing particularly well, but it wasn't a disaster. The strategy (aka vision) was for someone new to come in and take JCPenney in a better direction. The problem with Johnson's approach was not necessarily that his ideas were bad (many were quite good and others, well, we'll never know how they would have played out over time), but that they were forced upon shoppers too quickly and with almost no preparation.
People who had been given the private Johnson tour were mostly impressed, but shoppers were offered no such hand-holding. Unlike (remaining) employees, if you go too fast and get shoppers uncomfortable, they have no reason to give your new ideas a try.
Back to Ullman. Forget "not doing particularly well." Today, JCPenney is looking at a bankruptcy possibility. Shoppers are fleeing. That's the only vision the board sees and it's the only one—for the moment—they should see. Going back to the former CEO is a fine first step in righting the ship and making a case for shoppers to come back.
This is no longer a battle for creating the best retailer to compete in the 21st century. This is about survival. In that context, going back to the last CEO—a guy who needs no training, will require minimal if any transition, and knows the JCPenney workforce better than anyone—makes a lot of sense.