Apple's retail strategy was successful because of Steve's vision, and the fact that Apple had some of the most desirable products which made people want to go to an Apple store to check them out and then buy them. Ron was just at the right place at the right time and got some of the credit for Apple's retail success.
Ron's JC Penney concept made no sense from the beginning. There was nothing to draw people to a JC Penney store.
Bringing Ron back to Apple would be a big mistake.
My wife said this right from the get-go, when the guy was appointed. (She has a much better handle on the whole dept store shopping space across-the-board than I do -- without which, of course, our whole family would be in tatters).
Given what I had seen him do -- whether by accident or design -- at Apple, I originally thought she was wrong. But her insight was proven totally right!
As you said, the product sold itself at Apple stores. Most of what it needed was a radically different and inviting retail space. The new JCP had the latter (without the requisite human capital), but not the former.
It's easy to judge he was the wrong person for the wrong job. But there's no conclusive evidence at all.
Not everyone agrees RJ was a complete bust. Not everything he did was wrong.
There are those who argue that he was ousted just as things were turning around:
There are those who argue that he did some good and some bad things:
There are those who posit he was the right man for the wrong job at the wrong time:
No one can accurately argue whether time would have proven him right. His resume at JC Penney looks bad. But clearly there were signs that things were looking up. Are two years sufficient to assess his strategy? The problem is that he was so sure of himself that he didn't negotiate a golden parachute, making it easy for the board to kick him to the curb.
Furthermore, it's too easy to say that what worked for him at Apple wouldn't work elsewhere. He didn't start his career at Apple. He didn't become an overnight sensation under Jobs. Johnson's resume suggests he was well qualified to tackle the JC Penney job, perhaps even before he worked at Apple.
Was he given too credit for success of Apple Stores? Was Joe Torre given too credit the Yankees' four World Series. Who can ever know? Reality is that you must give a man his due credit when a team succeeds under his stewardship. No ifs, buts and in spite of's.
We can only know this much - he tried to engineer change and failed. But the failure may not be the failure of his strategy. It could well be the failure of the board to be more patient. This could have been a massive turnaround on a scale second only to that of Apple. We will never know because he was not afforded the free hand that Jobs had. I am being hyperbolic but, hopefully, some might appreciate the moral - To turn a ship around, you can't always just pick it up and flip it around. Most often, you actually have to rotate through the 180°, one degree at a time.