In a talk at Stanford University this year, Johnson admitted he and his team "went way too fast," though he stood by his business strategy, saying "I'm a creative person. Here's a company that isn't ubercreative." Johnson didn't respond to emails seeking comment.
With Ullman as a lame duck, Buzek says, some on the IT team may be biding their time. "They've got to be thinking, 'Am I willing to put my career on the line suggesting new things?'"
Sales at J.C. Penney have increased a bit. The company reported revenue of $5.6 billion for the first half of 2014, up 5.7 percent compared to the same period last year. Losses were smaller: $172 million in the red for the first half, compared to $586 million last year. Ullman, at the elaborate October show, projected $3.5 billion in new sales in the next three years, from a combination of e-commerce and better merchandising in stores.
Skepticism remains. "They have brought the patient into a state of induced coma," Stephens says. "But that's not going to stop the decline." Ullman, Johnson, Ullman again, and now Ellison-in-waiting--it may not matter. "The same underlying conditions exist: J.C. Penney is an antiquated brand that has been catering to aging clientele," Stephens says. "What does the future look like when you can't attract future shoppers?"
At the start of his tenure, an optimistic Johnson proclaimed, "We are going to become an entirely new class of department store that doesn't exist today." Now the question is whether J.C. Penney will exist tomorrow.
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