Apple’s Ron Johnson was named as next CEO of J.C. Penney, prompting the department store’s stock to shoot up Tuesday in expectation of a sleek retail makeover. (Mary Altaffer/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

A company that’s known more for catalogs than cache managed to lure away Ron Johnson, the mastermind behind Apple’s blockbuster retail stores, to be its next CEO. A former Target executive who incubated the discounter’s style-savvy strategy, Johnson has been called the Steve Jobs of retail, and investors have gone so far as to say he’s worth far more than even the $1.2 billion the market has valued him.  

Talk about big expectations to fill. No doubt Johnson will make an indelible mark on J.C. Penney, which has added designer names and brands under current CEO Myron “Mike” Ullman but still suffers from the mall malaise and recessionary spending that’s afflicting all department store chains. He’s probably got a better chance than anyone of adding a little glitter and glow to a retail genre that’s sorely in need of reform. His record at Target, after all, proves he’s not just a one-hit wonder who only flourished under the iMagic at Apple.

But I’m always skeptical when that much stock—literally or figuratively—is put into one person. No matter how brilliant he may be, he’ll still be working against the backdrop of a struggling economy and a tired department store format that’s been extremely resistant to change. And despite all his many credentials and successes, Johnson will hardly be working alone. He’ll need to call upon the talents of the executives who work around him, the merchants who stock J.C. Penney’s stores and, most of all, the people working on the front lines in what—let’s face it—has not been a sought-after job in a very long time.

That’s surely where Johnson will face his biggest struggle in leading the retailer. Yes, Apple’s stores are sleek glass temples to technology, showcasing the company’s drooled-over gadgets in consumer friendly ways. And yes, its people are given secretive customer service training and have handy tools at their fingertips that surely help make the Apple consumer’s experience so smooth.

But what really makes Apple’s stores tick is that the people who work in them are also the products’ biggest fans. As the Wall Street Journal noted in its story Wednesday, many Apple stores are flooded with applicants who are grilled on their passion for Apple products during the interview process. Meanwhile, it’s hard for most retailers to keep turnover of their frequently disengaged workforce below 100 percent, much less replicate the sort of enthusiasm and energy that Apple store employees bring to work with them each day. No matter how cool Johnson remakes J.C. Penney’s stores, men’s ties and bed sheets will never be a match for the iPhone.

Granted, one has to hope the people who hired Johnson know J.C. Penney will never be another Apple. They’re surely hoping it will get some of the hip sparkle Johnson bequeathed to Target instead. But investors’ outsized excitement for the announcement should be a warning bell for Johnson and the company’s board. A brilliant, innovative leader can’t do it alone, and expectations that are too high will only lead to disappointment later.

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