Early on in Orson Welles’s mostly magnificent 1942 movie, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Joseph Cotten shoehorns himself into a contraption no larger than a Big Wheel, but with far more levers and handles — a prototype of what will become the automobile — and sputters off along the turn-of-the-last-century town’s main street.
The camera cuts to disapproving townsfolk, who proclaim with great certainty the invention of the noxious motorized vehicle will never replace the horse and carriage.
The moral of the movie is that those who fail to see tomorrow’s potential — both its benefits and drawbacks — are in danger of being run over by it. Or at the very least, left abandoned on the side of the road.
Indeed, the coming of the car — and the then-unimagined changes it will make to the town, culture, business and the world — casts a shadow over the movie’s entire tragic tale.
As with those fictional townspeople, it’s not every day we clearly can see what the future offers. In “The Graduate” one of Dustin Hoffman’s father’s friends advises him to keep in mind “just one word” that will ensure his professional success — “plastics.” (Hoffman, as far as we know, doesn’t heed the recommendation.)
Movies don’t always get the future right. Science-fiction pictures used to depict the far future as being conducted by wall-filled computers with massive reel-to-reel tapes — even though Texas Instruments had filed for a patent for miniaturized electronic circuits back during the Eisenhower administration.
We can miscalculate in real life, too.
In February 2012, Ron Johnson, less than three months on the job as CEO of J.C. Penney, announced the Plano, Texas-based retailer would halt the some 600 sales it promoted a year, and pull down prices in its stores by 40 percent. (It already had begun to phase out its catalog operation.)
Competitors, industry observers and shoppers responded with, “Huh?”
On top of this new strategy of everyday low prices came a marketing blitz that served more to confuse than motivate. Would-be customers were shown in TV spots opening their mailboxes and then, well, screaming.
It was unclear why they were screaming. But the J.C. Penney logo is what appeared on the screen.
Its print pieces more recently moved in another direction, adopting the kind of sophisticated look you see in catalogs from J. Crew — a very different clientele than Penney’s shoppers who buy on price.
Results for J.C. Penney have been frightening. For fiscal year 2012, the chain reported a jaw-dropping loss of $985 million.
Johnson admitted “mistakes” were made. Sales, he added, would return.
What’s the future for J.C. Penney, its stakeholders and employees? It intends to continue remodeling 700 of its 1,100 stores in hopes of reviving customers’ interest.
But it’s not J. Crew, with its stylish, big-ticket clothing. Nor is it Walmart, which is perceived to have bragging rights to the low-price merchandise crown. It’s not even somewhere-in-the-middle Target.
So where does it go? If the chain’s brass doesn’t figure a way ahead soon, it could be left on the side of the road — or worse.