Penney Still Has Lessons to Learn, Much to Consider in Lengthy Overhaul

Beleaguered department store J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) might want to learn a lesson from Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) and others that have successfully navigated the tumultuous world of restructuring, as it trudges through a lengthy overhaul that has attracted much criticism.

Despite recent plans to spin off non-core assets, and constant calls for patience, the retailer has been unable to satisfy Wall Street’s insatiable appetite for improvement.

Shares of the Plano, Texas-based retailer have plummeted 18% since the beginning of this year amid disappointing earnings that included a 31% decline in same-store sales and mounting concerns regarding its multi-year turnaround. It has been slapped with a slew of downgrades, including to "neutral" from "buy" earlier this month by Citigroup (NYSE:C).

Penney has not closed stores or shuffled management since CEO Ron Johnson took the helm in 2011 and only recently began embracing promotions after its failed “no sales” promise.

Observers say it still has much to consider as it moves forward, including drastic measures to cut costs such as leveraging its fleet of brick-and-mortar stores and adopting a new digital strategy.

“JCP has a number of options, but it is a quandary, as the role of large brick and mortar stores seems to diminish every day,” said Anthony Michael Sabino, a business school professor at St. John's University.

Penney did not respond to FOX Business for a comment on this story.

JCP vs. BBY and Adapting to the Digital Age

Penney and Richfield, Minn.-based Best Buy obviously have different markets, but their restructuring goals are comparable. Both carry very expensive brick-and-mortar portfolios and must cut down costs, improve financial results and transform their aging brands.

Yet, they are going about it in startlingly different ways. Best Buy, whose strategy has been successful over the last few months, has taken a price-matching, tech-savvy approach while Penney focuses on rebranding its century-old brand, a massive undertaking.

Best Buy, which was in a similarly dire state as Penney just six months ago, has boosted same-store sales and quieted critics recently as its restructuring efforts gained traction. It has been upgraded by several analysts over the last few weeks, including to "overweight" on Monday by J.P. Morgan (NYSE:JPM) and to "outperform" on Wednesday by Credit Suisse (NYSE:CS), all in a nod to CEO Hubert Joly and confidence in his overhaul. Its shares are up 93% since January.

Retailers like Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) that offer free shipping despite their massive big-box stores have pioneered the transformation of retail in recent years, and Best Buy seems to be following the world's largest retailer in that aspect.

Penney, on the other hand, has shied away from the digital age, selling items online but doing little to promote it. Its lack of tech-savvy bears an unnerving resemblance to Blockbuster, which was forced to file for bankruptcy after failing to keep pace with new competition from movie streamers like Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX).

“A rebranding strategy is fraught with dangers if you have a traditional brand,” said Gary Adelson, an M&A managing director who works for turnaround firm Gavin/Solmonese.

Changing customer perception is difficult, he said, without adopting aggressive measures such as online engagement and monetizing the business in non-traditional ways.

Thomas Blischok, chief retail strategist at global consulting firm Booz & Co., urges Penney to take advantage of its already established web presence by connecting it more closely to the legacy retail business.

It could, for example, develop socially-engaging tools on its web site such as a program that allows potential customers to create and share digital ensembles inspired by Penney designers in an effort to encourage online sales or in-store visits. It could also look into online price matching and same-day pickup as Best Buy did this holiday season, to much success.

“It is supporting the ‘experience’ with marketing and merchandising,” Blischok said.

Leveraging Real Estate and Cutting Costs 

Perhaps more important than innovation is cutting expenses.

Penney has trimmed its workforce by thousands -- 19,000 positions last year and 2,200 recently -- and, to be fair, Johnson, who has restructuring experience at both Target (NYSE:TGT) and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), never promised an overnight turnaround.

But there’s no question Penney can be more aggressive, including leveraging its massive portfolio of real estate assets to boost its bottom line. The retailer, which operates 1,100 brick-and-mortar stores, doubled real estate costs in the fourth quarter to $88 million.

Best Buy, meanwhile, reduced selling, general and administrative costs by $1.0 billion sequentially in its most recent quarter as it shut 15 Canadian big-box stores and a handful in the U.S. while slimming its workforce.

International Strategy and Investment Group analyst Omar Saad said Monday in a note to clients that Penny, which owns 426 of its stores, could increase the business’s worth to as much as $40 a share if it were to separate its 300 best locations into a real-estate investment trust and sublet space to higher end brands and retailers.

"Investors may be overlooking an intriguing alternate outcome," Saad said in the note, estimating that Penney could "conservatively generate" $1.2 billion of sublet rental income, resulting in a $10.8 billion enterprise valuation.

BTIG Research, which initiated coverage on Penney last week with a "buy," similarly touted the attractive "risk/reward profile" of the company's owned real estate.

“We think the market is undervaluing both the individual and combined worth of these assets," BTIG analyst William Frohnhoefer said in a note.

While the company has much to consider as it moves forward with its lengthy overhaul, Sabino says there's no clear answer. It simply must experiment, test and adjust as it works through its greatest transformation in a hundred years.

“JCP will have to continue to adapt and experiment, and hope it can find a niche and maintain it while the world around it changes,” he said.