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J.C. Penney tries to make workers easier to identify

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Best Buy Co.'s sales force wears blue shirts. Apple Inc. “specialists” are garbed in branded tees. J.C. Penney Co. associates can wear whatever they want.

The un-dress code is a legacy of ousted Chief Executive Officer Ron Johnson, the former Apple retail chief who espoused a hipper, less formal vibe for J.C. Penney. The strategy has a flaw evident to anyone who has shopped at the department-store chain lately: You can't tell the sales workers from everyone else. That made it hard to ask for assistance and pay for purchases because Johnson removed many cash registers and put checkout devices in the hands of hard-to-find store workers.

As Johnson successor Mike Ullman tries to reverse a sales collapse at the century-old department store chain, he's restoring some basic ABCs of retailing — tenets he became familiar with during his previous stint at J.C. Penney. Before the back-to-school shopping season next month, store workers will be outfitted with red branded lanyards, Ullman said. The company is considering changing the relaxed dress code.

“We want to make sure there is no doubt who works for us,” said Ullman, 66.

In his bid to transform J.C. Penney into a fashion destination, Johnson encouraged store employees to wear designer jeans and graphic T-shirts. Customers who felt alienated when Johnson killed discounts and several popular brands found in the camouflaged store workers another reason to shop elsewhere. Sales last year plunged 25 percent, leading to a net loss of $985 million.

While shares of the Plano, Texas-based chain have rebounded 12 percent since Ullman returned on April 8, they remain down 47 percent from Johnson's first day as CEO on Nov. 1, 2011.

The dearth of cashiers led to more challenges: Where to fold and bag clothing? Where would bags be stored? What if the customer wanted a printed receipt instead of an emailed one?

Ullman's solution: put 2,800 wheeled carts in about 700 of J.C. Penney's largest stores that can be rolled to the busiest departments. Some will have a fully functioning cash register and all of them will give store workers a place to fold clothes, store bags and print receipts.

The 20 or so store workers packing checkout devices in each store will now wear a gray sash that serves as a holster. The chain is adding signs explaining how to check out.

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