Note to Ron: J.C. Penney isn't Apple

Johnson in Apple's Manhattan store in 2009, standing in front of a seemingly relevant sign. Sarah Tew/CNET

(MoneyWatch) One day, probably not so far away, someone will write a book about all the mistakes businesses have made trying to repeat Apple's turnaround. So far, one has done a better job of misinterpreting Apple's success than Ron Johnson at J.C. Penney. Here are just a few things he seemed not to appreciate, even though he had worked at Apple:

1. Not all retail is the same. Apple had highly distinctive products that were sufficiently enticing and conveyed enough status that price wasn't an issue. In that sense, it was more akin to Armani than to WalMart. But at JCP, Johnson had a range of fairly generic products which the company could select but not determine. Retail varies profoundly according to whether you mandate the supply chain or are just at the receiving end of it. To maintain price requires having something special to offer -- and JCP has never been famous for that.

2. Cash counts. Johnson has talked in the past about how Apple persisted with its retail strategy in the teeth of widespread market derision. But even during this period, Apple was accumulating cash. That gave the company breathing space.

3. Despair has leverage. Steve Jobs had time to turn Apple around because he had the cash - but also because there was no one else who might have inspired as much hope. If he couldn't fix the company, no one could. Unfortunately for Mr. Johnson, no one has quite the same degree of confidence in his talents.

4. Timing counts. Apple was able to capture the upside of recession. In an economic downturn, many companies rein in new products, prompting boredom in the consumer market. So it can be a great time to launch fresh products into a relative desert. To do so, however, requires that those products be genuinely exciting. A line of products by Martha Stewart hardly fits that bill; she is last century's story.

5. Reputation takes time. Even on its knees in 2000, Apple still had a reputation for design -- a reputation which it could burnish. JCP has no such legacy.

6. Strategy requires more than rhetoric and self-belief. The turnaround at Apple, of which Johnson was a part, showed strategic courage and insight. It rode fundamentally on broadband penetration in the U.S. exceeding 50 percent. Like all great strategic thinking, it married internal capability with external change. Nothing in Johnson's JCP strategy appears to have taken into account what is happening in the consumer's life. Self-belief alone won't change a thing.

7. The difference between arrogance and genius is decided by history. And the board.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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