Ron Johnson: the retail king’s quest for redemption

Ron Johnson’s spell at JCPenney, following his triumph at Apple, was a disaster. Now, his latest attempt to rescue his reputation has just crashed into bankruptcy.

Ron Johnson
Johnson’s great comeback vehicle has evaporated in the Spac bust”
(Image credit: © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Apple Store inventor Ron Johnson is given to Zen-like aphorisms that slightly miss the mark – instructing employees, for instance, to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry”. It adds to a sense of mixed messages. Beneath his trademark Midwestern calm, a colleague once observed, is “a boiling cauldron” that has powered a career of extremes.

Fêted as a revolutionary retail genius at Apple, Johnson bombed from hero to zero during a disastrous 18-month run at JCPenney, which, a decade on, still makes the lists of great management cock-ups. Ever since, says the New York Observer, he’s “been on a quest for redemption”.

Johnson’s attempt to revolutionise shopping

To his credit, Johnson shrugged off his humiliating firing, almost immediately securing Wall Street backing for a new venture that tapped his famed ability to put the “humanness” into tech support.

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Enjoy Technology, which launched in 2015 when the “Uberisation” of everything was in full swing, was billed as “the next big thing in disruptive retail”, says Retail Dive.

Strip out the jargon and the essential offer was “a mobile store” – featuring a fleet of vans crammed with gadgets and empathetic geeks, bent on maximising that crucial “last-mile” opportunity to upsell. “What we’re trying to do,” said Johnson, “is to deliver unimagined customer service. It’s better than a store, it’s the same price as online, and it’s faster than even Amazon Prime.” In early 2020 Forbes declared that “this start-up may be his crowning achievement”.

Still, having set out to disrupt retail, Enjoy got disrupted itself. Nine months after scrambling onto the “blank-cheque” initial public offering bandwagon via a merger with Marquee Raine Acquisition, valued at $1.1bn, it has filed for bankruptcy, says the Financial Times. Johnson’s great comeback vehicle has evaporated into just another statistic of the Spac bust.

Humble career beginnings and a call from Apple

Now 62, Johnson started out humbly – after gaining a BA from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard – by taking a trainee position with Mervyn’s, a “middle-scale” Californian department-store chain, before moving back to Minnesota to join Target. It was here he made his mark as a moderniser, says Retail Dive: signing a series of design partnerships that turned Target into “Tar-zhay”, an aspirational, middlebrow mega-retailer, using “a playbook” that H&M, Uniqlo and many others have since copied. From there it was a short step to being headhunted by Apple in 2000.

If Ron Johnson made Target “hip”, he made Apple stores “the envy of retail”, says Forbes – eventually boasting “far higher sales per square foot than even luxury retailers such as Tiffany and Saks”. Johnson’s gamble was to put a computer shop among these swans in the guise of stylish, but approachable, temples of Apple technology. His new “Genius Bar” format upended accepted perceptions of dire technical support.

Decades after this “hyper-successful” retail gambit, Johnson was still name-dropping his “famed mentor” Steve Jobs, says the FT. Arguably he had every right to, says Fast Company. “The resurgence of Apple in the early 2000s is at least partially due” to the way Johnson “revolutionised the computer shopping experience”.

The Steve Jobs playbook

When the established but dowdy department chain JCPenney secured Johnson’s services in 2011, it seemed all its Christmases had come at once. Yet in record time, he inflicted wounds from which it is still recovering, says the New York Observer.

In keeping with Jobs’ “disdain for focus groups”, Johnson dispensed with customer surveys – spending big on a new regime that swept away favourite brands and an old-fashioned, but popular, coupon system, says Fast Company. Sales plunged, as did the shares – prompting Johnson’s early eviction.

Hopes that Enjoy Technology would mark a return to form have, at least temporarily, been dashed. Now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the firm’s future is up in the air.

“I have learned from many, but the most powerful lessons I learned came from working… with Steve Jobs,” Johnson said last year. “He taught me that when you deliver the highest quality you can imagine, you will have a great business forever.” Not always.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.