In a large organization like JCPenney, new hires are immediately given a tidal wave of information on policies, procedures, scheduling, customer service, and register training as well as a host of other operational details. A great deal of careful planning and thoughtful development of training programs goes on in an effort to strike a balance between providing the necessary information and overwhelming new hires with information; not to mention preparing them to hit the sales floor in a timely manner.
In the midst of this informational flood, the question remains: How do you effectively communicate your message to both existing and newly hired associates? More importantly, how do you get the associates in your stores interested and engaged in reducing shrink and improving profits?
The Awareness Challenge
Most companies have awareness campaigns that include posters, pamphlets, and signs that reiterate the organization’s policies and procedures. But the real challenge is getting that shrink reduction message to the “millennium generation,” those bright young people who listen and learn differently, who adapt to, then abandon new communication technologies faster than the average group of corporate communication specialists can imagine.
At JCPenney recently, it was determined that a new approach to getting associates more interested and engaged in shrink awareness was long overdue. There was a shrinkage program in-house, but feedback identified that the program had run its course. JCPenney was faced with a big question—what’s the best, most efficient, and cost effective way to communicate a very serious message to a group of people who are used to getting all of their important information via electronic devices.
The authors, both senior project managers, one from operations and one from loss prevention, were given the task of updating the company program. The assignment—create messages about shrinkage that were interesting, engaging, and deliver them to a high-tech audience via a low-tech medium.
The company’s target audience has rapidly adopted text messaging, podcasting, and web-based social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. To them, pamphlets and posters were just “so twentieth century.” This is a group of people who rely on quick and amusing messages to communicate. The task was to reach all of our associates in a fun and exciting way
The audience ranged from nontechnical associates who have only been exposed to older communications vehicles to very technical groups who have never known a world without MTV, instant messaging, downloading their new favorite CD, and turning in their latest homework assignment on-line. This same group uses their cell phones constantly, not just for verbal communications, but for sending text messages, pictures, or video from Friday night’s party, and for forwarding information like Mapquest directions to the latest hotspot.
Even more disturbing, most of this generation seem to see nothing wrong with making a copy of a CD they purchased and giving it to a friend or downloading a pirated DVD off the Internet. Giving their friends extra “discounts” or trading “favors” was something that many felt was “OK.”
Recognizing these trends in both communication styles and values, we realized we needed something different and innovative to get the message across. We also knew that we had to start the campaign using what the target audience would perceive as “old” media.
The JCPenney Culture
To fully understand what a departure this campaign represents, you must have a thorough understanding of the JCPenney corporate culture. To say the organization is “conservative” is somehow understating it.
The company started in 1902 in Kemmerer, Wyoming, when James Cash Penney opened his first “Golden Rule” store. This company is rightfully proud of their history and heritage. The original goal of their founder simply was expressed as follows:
“We took our slogan ‘Golden Rule Store’ with strict literalness. Our idea was to make money and build business through serving the community with fair dealing and honest value.”
Penney’s ideas about honest value and customer service are still sacrosanct. During the Great Depression, after suffering severe personal financial losses, Penney actually borrowed against his own life insurance policies to make sure his employees were paid on time. Little wonder that this humble, polite and deeply faithful man’s conservative values of honesty, integrity, and fairness still loom large in the hearts and minds of store managers throughout the organization he founded.
Choosing a Creative Partner
The first step to meeting this challenge was to find an outside provider who shared the same vision we had.
We needed a vendor who could fulfill all of the creative needs, while still sending the important shrink-reduction, anti-theft message to our associates. We looked for a company that was innovative and could help deliver both out-of-the-box and off-the-wall thinking, because if it wasn’t out-of-the-box or off-the-wall, our associates may not be interested. Our goal was to find someone who could help us surprise our associates with something new.
After a lengthy search, we partnered with Punch Communications. Punch brought the creative element to the vision of the program that we wanted to convey. Their product was edgy, but it still communicated the message that we wanted to present.
To better understand our unique culture and the challenges the program would face, Punch conducted store tours, and had numerous conversations with both store associates and store managers.
“We developed the new shrinkage awareness program by combining store and associate insights with Punch’s knowledge of how retail associates think, act, and feel,” says Ric Angostini, Punch Communications client services manager.
Rolling Out the Program
The initial rollout focused on the 2005 holiday sales season. Even though the team worked under tight deadlines, the project team was able to quickly produce holiday loss prevention awareness materials. Once work on the holiday campaign was completed, then we turned our attention to a full twelve-month awareness program for 2006.
The 2006 program included posters, manager’s talking points, door signs, and contest cards. It was decided that each JCPenney store would receive two posters monthly. One poster would focus on internal shrinkage, while the other poster would focus on external shrinkage.
The internal posters would convey a message regarding values like honesty, integrity, and responsibility. They would explain our policy regarding internal theft, and how the company deals with it. The slogan, “Keep it Real, Just don’t Steal” was born.
The externally driven posters included messages about shoplifting and organized retail crime, targeting ways that associates could prevent external theft. Together the monthly posters would send an unmistakably strong message that theft, be it internal or external, would be dealt with swiftly and sternly. Each anti-theft message had imbedded in it a clear message that actions have consequences.
An edgy internal campaign like this one had a good chance of being perceived as a rather large departure from our conservative past. Culturally, the organization was used to communicating messages in a straightforward, no nonsense kind of way. We were convinced that this was the right thing to do, but realized we were also taking a big risk with this project.
The audience was located in over 1,100 locations and the managers of those stores have a lot of autonomy. Would stores like the messages or would there be complaints? Our leaders weren’t so sure. The posters had an edge to them and people were concerned about how stores would react to such strong language. But we were convinced that we had a good product. We crossed our fingers and sent the first posters out.
From the beginning the relationship between Punch and JCPenney produced interesting and informative messages. The posters were very well received by stores and were a huge hit with our associates. Every month two posters along with what are known as manager talks, designed for store managers to use with associates, were sent to the stores. The company hotline numbers are included in every poster, and associates are encouraged to talk to their manager about concerns or call the hotline.
The shrinkage home page included updated JPEG files of the new posters along with an outline of what was going on that month. It includes the manager talks and what posters were being shipped to the stores. This allowed the stores to know what was coming and helped them prepare to communicate the message.
The Birth of Skip
As year two loomed, the question became, “How do we top last year?” We went back to the drawing table and decided that the new campaign needed a shrinkage spokesperson who would appeal to our associate audience. We knew it needed to be someone young and hip that our store associates could relate to. We knew that the messages needed to be presented in the vernacular of the target audience. After much discussion and brainstorming, as well as the help of the JCPenney communications team, a character named Skip was born.
It was decided that each month, not only would stores receive the posters and manager talks, but a shrinkage “video commercial” was added to the mix. These commercials would be 90 to 120 seconds long and feature Skip as a JCPenney associate. With a character now developed, the company conducted a search and hired an experienced producer/director to assist in finalizing the production of each commercial.
Now, each month Skip is faced with a variety of issues, everything from visitor/vendor control of high-shrink areas to merchandise return situations, as well as internal and external theft issues.
The company wanted to show “real life” situations that contained a message. This coincided with the format that our associates received their everyday information with a message that was entertaining and relevant.
We wanted Skip to start out like many JCPenney associates, as a part-time employee with a goal in mind. The initial rollout followed Skip as he maneuvered his way through a barrage of training. The storyline was that Skip had come on board just trying to earn extra money so he could go to spring break with his friends. We developed a kick-off contest where associates could solve a shrinkage riddle and be entered into a drawing to win their very own spring break vacation.
The promotion called for $1,500 travel vouchers to be given away to each region. The cool spokesperson they could relate to coupled with the chance of prizes sparked enormous interest. JCPenney associates went wild.
As the anticipation leading up to the drawing grew, we decided to ramp up the excitement even more. Once the winners from each region were selected, we went to the stores with a film crew to deliver each prize to the winners. The winning stores had a great time preparing for the visits. We handed out custom Skip T-shirts as prizes. Every store had huge turnouts to meet Skip. The winners were so excited, and the associates loved meeting Skip.
Expanding Skip’s Role
The commercials were taped each month. They contained one message about internal shrinkage and one message addressing external shrinkage. The campaign was a huge success. The commercials were sent to the stores and then shown each month before and after each internal informational broadcast and class. Store managers would preview the commercials with store associates and then use the provided talking points to focus the discussion.
After the initial contest was completed, stores regularly received additional contest materials. These ranged from gift cards to pizza and movie coupons.
Skip also started to appear on the posters, new contests, and other communications. In fact, Skip was becoming something of a celebrity. Even though the initial group of associates targeted was technical and hip, Skip was quickly loved by everyone in the stores. Younger associates thought he was just like them, and the more experienced associates found his message humorous and engaging.
One evening, the spokesperson that plays Skip was out with friends watching basketball playoffs, when he noticed a group of young men staring at him. Not sure what to think, he was starting to get a bit nervous. Finally, the guys approached the table and asked. “Hey dude, are you Skip?” With a sigh of relief, and perhaps a bit of elation, he said, “Yes.” “We love your commercials,” they said and the young men shook “Skip’s” hand and went back to their table.
The Skip idea really took off. The buzz at the corporate office was in full swing. Individual departments were now using Skip and his message as a benchmark. The creative teams were inundated with requests from home office departments asking, “Can you make us posters that look like the shrinkage awareness posters?”
Skip also made personal appearances and everyone wanted their pictures taken with him.
Commercials at the POS
In June 2007 with some upgrades that became available with technology, JCPenney made the commercials available for viewing at points of sale. Now, stores have the ability to view the commercials during pre-opening stand up meetings, and any associate can view the commercials when they’re not assisting customers.
The store managers love the idea that this very important communication is right at their fingertips. Associates love the new commercials. “When is Skip coming to our store?” is a regular question from associates.
We know that our associates read the posters and watch the videos. When new posters are shipped to stores, the JCPenney hotline regularly sees an increase in calls, mostly related to the topics addressed on the posters.
This program has been a certified success in targeting a difficult-to-reach audience. We believe our successful awareness formula involves creating messages specifically tailored to all generations, delivered in a clever way by someone they can relate to.
Now, what to do about next year…