By Sarah Bicknell
Brett Nelson, an SMU student and young professional in Dallas, was shocked when he set foot into a J.C. Penney store recently for the first time in nearly 10 years. A Dallas native, Nelson grew up going to the Valley View store with his mom and sisters, which he described as a negative shopping experience. “From what I can remember, the traditional style department store was a dark, unorganized mess, with clusters of clothes clumped sporadically around,” Nelson recalls. “Now the store is much more pleasant to be in. It’s cleaner and the merchandise is easier to find. I actually enjoy going to J.C. Penney now.”
For the past 18 months, Plano-headquartered J.C. Penney, one of America’s largest mid-range apparel and home furnishings department store retailers, has been undergoing a major revival in hopes of becoming a store Americans go to for stylish products at an affordable price. Although the revamp appeals to young customers like Nelson, the company has also been experiencing significant growing pains as the retailer’s traditional customer base has been left confused by the changes.
In 1,100 stores nationwide and on jcp.com, the company has completely revamped its image to provide customers with a unique and exciting shopping experience. The makeover incorporates the addition of collections by some of the most sought-after and exclusive brands.
Mike Theilmann, former group executive vice president for J.C. Penney states, “J.C. Penney’s goal was to change the shopping experience for the customer by changing the existing departments into smaller boutiques. Stores now have, for instance, a Levis boutique, which carries men, women and children’s clothing.”
Prior to the company’s major renovation efforts in 2011, J.C. Penney was known for being a low-end department-style retail store, geared toward serving a lower-income, middle-aged and elderly consumer base. J.C. Penney carried a certain stigma for being a home goods store for the lower class.
“We want to be known for more than that,” says Reba Robinson, part of J.C. Penney’s corporate customer relations team. “J.C. Penney’s goal is to attract all different types of customers, of every age and socioeconomic status, both male and female.”
In 2011, J.C. Penney saw the need for a change, so the company brought in Apple, Inc.’s former senior vice president of retail operations, Ron Johnson, to transform the company’s culture and personality. Johnson was given free rein and when he announced his renovation vision in late 2012, it was received well.
By February of 2013, in an effort to mimic the Target model, J.C. Penney had paired up with some of the world’s leading designers and brands to bring their styles to more Americans at affordable prices. Among many, the debut included the addition of brands like Joe Fresh, Pearl by Georgina Chapman of Marchesa and L’Amour Nanette Lepore.
Joe Fresh, a popular Canadian apparel brand known for its classic style with a twist, brought colorful collections of modern basics to the J.C. Penney woman in nearly 700 stores nationwide. Renowned red carpet designer Georgina Chapman brought her design flair with the launch of her collection Pearl by Georgina Chapman of Marchesa. The collection of gowns, cocktail dresses and cocktail pant and short sets, created for holiday parties and black-tie events, paid homage to the designer’s glamorous and elegant style. Each look featured luxurious fabrics and hidden details at an affordable price point, ranging from $50 to $250. Highly coveted American designer Nanette Lepore, known for her use of bright colors and vibrant prints, combined her famous style with youthful elements to create a line exclusively for the junior’s department at J.C. Penney. L’Amour offered its customers an easy to wear line of mix and matchable dresses, skirts, shirts and denim.
Kate Coultas in J.C. Penney’s media relations department notes, “Brands like Joe Fresh and Nanette Lepore, have partnered with JC Penney to expand their footprint. These companies have taken their high-end lines and revamped them to appeal to middle America.”
Not only did J.C. Penney bring in an array of new brands and designers, the company completely refurbished some of its existing brands.
“JCP private brands have been revamped, which add great value to the company, like Worthington, which has been around for so long,” Coultas adds.
In addition to adding new designers and revamping its existing brands, J.C. Penney debuted an entirely new home store.
“Before, in general, if you were to ask someone from the ages of 50 to 90, most people would say their home goods were bought at J. C. Penney. That’s not the only type of customer we would like to target,” Robinson notes.
With the launch of exciting new products and attractions exclusive to J.C. Penney, by designers such as Michael Graves and Jonathan Adler, the company was able to bring in a younger, more chic client base. In more than 500 stores nationwide, the home store renovation featured updated floor plans, accent light and custom fixtures, more conducive to shopping an assortment of high-quality, low-cost home furnishings by well-known designers.
With all of these drastic changes J.C. Penney made to its stores, to some extent, the company was able to attract a younger client, like Nelson. But what about the existing customer?
“JCP cancelled many long-running brands, which the traditional customer didn’t like. They cancelled brands and brought in new ones hoping to be more hip, more up tempo, but they are also more expensive,” Theilmann states.
To some degree, the renovations left the traditional, loyal customer confused and empty handed. A store this customer was used to shopping for so many years is now barely recognizable to them; the storefront, the merchandise and the layout have all been drastically changed.
Theilmann says, “It is difficult to teach a customer how to shop the new store.”