When big retailers crash and burn, it seems they do so with style. The trials and tribulations of Sears/Kmart, despite its stylish moves into the fashion world, have been chronic and ongoing. Equally precarious these days is the fate of JCPenney.
In June, JCPenney brand president Michael Francis exited the troubled retailer after less than a year, in a shakeup that was seen as his taking the fall for CEO Ron Johnson. Francis, a former Target exec, along with Johnson, who formerly ran Apple's stores, couldn't combine their top shelf retail experience to effect a turnaround. On the contrary, the company's "fair and square pricing" (with the new logo at right to support the concept) essentially ditched sales and moved to Walmart-like "everyday low" pricing and twice-monthly clearance events. It was anything but successful. In fact, this lead balloon is now being replaced with a return to the more common retail strategy of a "sale."
Is it too little too late? The strapped J. C. Penney Company is cutting 350 jobs in its headquarters and selling part of its stake in Simon Property Group, a major mall developer, to raise $248 million in cash. Even so, the company is trying its darndest to crawl its way back into being a legitimate retail competitor, and that's where fashion comes in.
The company recently announced a new partnership with fashion guru Nina Garcia, whose claim to fame includes being a Project Runway judge, best-selling author, and fashion director of Marie Claire magazine — in addition to serving as a "fashion expert" for Target. Switching retail partners, Garcia will now play a role in advising the retailer's merchandise and design teams so the JCPenney apparel collections are up to snuff.
Fashion will be a core element of in-store changes as well. Nearly 700 JCPenney stores around the U.S. are adding in-store shops with a focus on fashion —specifically jeans — slated to open on August 1. The shops will feature Arizona and Levi's brands, along with "i jeans by Buffalo," a new brand that will see new products added monthly. "Fit specialists" and "denim bars" will be available, as will Levi's "Curve ID" program to help women find jeans by body type.
JCPenney is pinning a lot of hopes on the store-within-a-store concept at the same time that Target is ramping up its in-store branded boutique partnerships with a new crop of hip retail brands including Kirna Zabete coming this fall.
In September, it will open shops that focus on Izod, Liz Claiborne, and men's and women's wear. Next April, the retailer just announced that it will open some 700 dedicated in-store boutiques pitching Canada's red hot Joe Fresh chain of fast fashion stores founded by Loblaw's and Club Monaco founded Joe Mimran (hence the brand name).
Joe Fresh is Canada's largest apparel brand, so adding Joe's disintinctive orange brand framework to JCPenney's red square could be a win-win: Joe Fresh gets exposure across the U.S., where it's been establishing a foothold in New York City and New Jersey, while JCPenney stores gain exclusive access to another brand it can peddle through its shops. CEO Johnson calls it "part of JCPenney's repositioning to a completely re-imagined department store."
It probably won't be long before we find out if that re-imagining will do the trick. As JCP CEO Johnson quipped, "We are trying to essentially convert the Titanic into 1,100 WaveRunners, and that is really hard to do."