JC Penney key sales metric rises in October

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

PLANO, Texas (AP) — J.C. Penney said Thursday that a key sales barometer rose in October for the first time in nearly two years, a sign shoppers are returning to the store brands that have been brought back to its shelves.

The struggling department store's stock climbed in premarket trading.

Penney said sales at stores open at least a year edged up 0.9 percent last month — the first increase since December 2011. This figure is a key indicator of a retailer's health, because it measures growth at ongoing locations by excluding results from stores recently opened or closed

In September, the figure fell 4 percent for the Plano, Texas company.

October online sales climbed 37.6 percent from last year, with home merchandise sales rising more than 50 percent from September 2012. There were also strong sales of women's, men's and children's clothing.

J.C. Penney Co. said it continues to work on remerchandising and reconfiguring its home department in stores and online so that it matches better with how customers shop. The company said that its effort appears to be having an impact already, as the home department saw the biggest percentage sales increase among its units in October.

The store is trying to recover from a failed turnaround attempt spearheaded by former CEO Ron Johnson. Penney's board ousted Johnson in April after 17 months on the job and rehired former CEO Mike Ullman.

Under Ullman, J.C. Penney has brought back frequent sales events that Johnson ditched. It's also restored basic merchandise, particularly store brands like St. John's Bay, that was either phased out or eliminated by Johnson in a bid to attract more affluent, younger shoppers. Under Johnson, the company brought in trendy names like Betsey Johnson and focused on every day prices, eliminating hundreds of sales.

On Thursday, J.C. Penney credited its increased October sales to restoring inventory of private brands like St. John's Bay and Stafford. The chain said it also had significant sales increases in national brands including Nike, Carter's, Dockers and Levi's.

Ullman said that the company is working on restoring the proper mix of private, exclusive and national brand products so that it fits better with shoppers' wants and needs and results in fewer markdowns.

The CEO said that the rise in October sales was particularly encouraging because the retailer was dealing with the federal government shutdown as well as a tough consumer environment.

Gearing up for the holidays, Ullman said that the company is ready to execute its aggressive plans. This includes opening its stores on Thanksgiving night.

"We expect the holiday season to be extremely competitive, and we are ready to win," he said.

J.C. Penney will report its third-quarter financial results on Nov. 20. Its stock gained 40 cents, or 5.2 percent, to $8.10 before the market open. Shares closed Wednesday down 61 percent for the year, at $7.70.