Ron Johnson Bringing Apple Revival Experience to J.C. Penney

Apple retail executive Ron Johnson helped launch Apple's retail stores and establish their successful brand. Can he do the same for J.C. Penney?

Apple's senior vice president of retail, Ron Johnson, is stepping down to take the CEO reins at J.C. Penney.

Johnson is widely credited with helping Apple develop a formidable retail presence. Over the course of the past decade, the company has expanded from its initial two stores (in Tyson's Corner, Va., and Glendale, Calif.) to more than 300 locations worldwide.

From the very beginning, the Apple stores served a vital role as ambassadors of the brand. "We're here to expand Apple market share," Johnson noted in October 2001, as the company opened its ninth location in Palo Alto, Calif. "If we do great stores in the right places where people gather ... if we have phenomenally well-trained people, we think our market share will grow dramatically."

The stores themselves embraced the same clean, minimalist aesthetic of Apple devices, heavy on the glass and chrome accents, with any metallic coldness offset by blonde-wood or pale floors. Indeed, like any Apple release, the stores developed under a heavy cloak of secrecy: Leander Kahney, in the book Inside Steve's Brain, described how Apple CEO Steve Jobs "asked [Johnson] to use an alias for several months lest anyone get wind that Apple was planning to open retail stores." Apple used census and customer data to determine the best retail locations, and wrestled with how to best present and sell a limited product line.

"That was a challenge," Johnson is quoted as saying in Kahney's book. "But it ended up beind the ultimate opportunity, because we said, -Because we don't have enough products to fill a store that size, let's fill it with the ownership experience'."

Jobs apparently had a mockup store built in a California warehouse, which Apple's people then used to tweak and refine the design. Johnson advocated some of the Apple stores' more iconic features, including the Genius Bar. "Jobs liked the idea of face-to-face support, but having known a lot of geeks, he was afraid they wouldn't have the people skills to deal with the public," Kahney related. "But Johnson persuaded him that most young people are very familiar with computers and they would have little trouble" hiring employees for customer service.

The overall look of the stores has changed little from the early days, although the products on display are much sleeker and touch-centric than when Jobs offered a 2001 run-though of one location in particular.

J.C. Penney will present an altogether different challenge for Johnson. According to Bloomberg, the department-store chain is currently focused on lowering its overall expenses in order to compensate for a rising cost in materials. J.C. Penney has also closed some of its stores. In many ways, becoming CEO would represent something of a return for Johnson, who spent years working as an executive for Target before joining Apple.

Meanwhile, Apple is seeking to fill his role.

"We've got a great retail team in place and are actively recruiting for his replacement," Amy Bessette, a spokesperson for Apple, told Bloomberg June 14.