When a CEO takes over a troubled chain, bold moves are generally encouraged. But when the chain is a much-beloved 110-year-old, 1,100-store $17 billion household name, bold can be very bad.

When a CEO takes over a troubled chain, bold moves are generally encouraged. But when the chain is a much-beloved 110-year-old, 1,100-store $17 billion household name, bold can be very bad.

Enter Ron Johnson—fresh from Apple and formerly from Target—and his taking over JCPenney. The chain is melting impressively quickly and Johnson’s boldness is a textbook example of taking the wrong lessons from retail history.

He opened his strategy with a pledge to do away with coupons and promotional pricing. And he was stunned—stunned, I say—that shoppers didn’t applaud this move. His people argued to shoppers that this always-low-price strategy would be a better deal for them. First, American shoppers have never been particularly good at math, which is something for which Walmart is eternally grateful. But more importantly, that defense reflects a misunderstanding of the allure of coupons and promotional pricing. It’s psychological and it’s that extra effort that makes shoppers believe that they are getting something denied others. When your counter to that involves spreadsheets, you’ve already lost.

After a few months of customer backlash, JCPenney reversed course, but the damage had been done. Then the chain quietly eliminated sales commissions, which served to further demoralize associates, when they were needed most. More revenue plummets.

This month, chief executive Johnson slipped in an even bolder—some might say crazier—move, in the middle of a very difficult analyst meeting. Johnson said JCPenney was able—and presumably willing to—start CRM programs for children. Is this guy a double-agent working for Target? It’s hard to envision a more incendiary suggestion than to say that you’re going to start tracking purchases of children, without any comforting comments. No “of course, it will only be for those 13 years old and older” or “clearly, nothing will happen without written explicit parental consent” or “No, I really don’t intend to offend every parent in the country. Merely 96 percent will suffice.”

The fact is that such a program, done carefully, with all of the right restrictions, could be a powerful marketing move. But this is the worst possible time to float this kind of an idea.

This child CRM/loyalty idea actually slips through the cracks of U.S. law. The American legal system has severe restrictions on what online retailers can do with consumers younger than 13 years old. That law was based on etailers’ ability to track far more closely than anything else at the time. Today, though, mobile is allowing customer activity tracking (the exact location of the customer, every barcode or QR code scanner, every NFC tag contacted, every purchase made or considered, etc.) that is far more sophisticated and intrusive than anything being done online.

So it’s rather ironic that there are zero restrictions on what retailers can do with kids in-store. That said, U.S. retailers have self-imposed restrictions in-store, limits that go beyond online. What JCPenney floated is certainly legal, but it’s heresy in retail circles.

Is it time to re-evaluate the tracking of child purchases, especially given the youth affinity for mobile interactions? Probably yes. But is it time for beseiged retailer JCPenney to publicly consider it, especially right now? After cutting commissions, disposing of coupons and generally freaking out customers with radical store changes? Not even close.

Even worse, Johnson is pushing all of these changes and is relying on IT to deploy. But his COO has publicly attacked his own IT operation, in a way rarely seen. ““I can think of no other thing to say about our systems and our IT infrastructure, and I have seen a lot of them: It’s a mess,” said chief operating officer Michael Kramer. He rattled off quite a few specifics—including out-of-control inventory management and legacy system maintenance that ate up 90 percent of the IT budget—in taking his people down. (You really should check out the particulars he listed. I doubt we’ll see such a specific rant at this executive level again anytime soon.)

It is all regrettable, though, because the changes JCPenney is implementing actually are all good things. They’ve simply been presented to customers in a horrible way and the timing was about as tone-deaf as anything I’ve seen in retail in the last 20 years. Getting shoppers to step out of their comfort zones is necessary, but it must be finessed.

The benefits to the shoppers must be stressed and illustrated. Never underestimate the resistance to change, even change that truly does deliver meaningful shopper benefits. This isn’t logical or rational. Shopping is—and always has been—an emotional experience, something that Johnson seems to have forgotten.

Evan Schuman is editor of StorefrontBacktalk.com, a US-based site that tracks retail technology, e-commerce and mobile commerce issues and a Retail Week content partner. He can be reached on eschuman@storefrontbacktalk.com.