J.C. Penney's converts its stores to 'shops'

| Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

J.C. Penney's new Monroeville Mall location is open, but that does not mean work on the store is finished.

Starting in January, home merchandise areas will be transformed to fit the department store chain's new “shops” format with defined areas for Martha Stewart and other brands, said Gary Hodgkins, the store's team leader, at a grand opening event on Friday.

Carter's has a display now in the children's clothing department. But that well-known label and Disney apparel will have their own shops in time for the next back-to-school season.

“All the Penney's are in a transformation process right now,” said Hodgkins, who referred to the retailer by both its formal name and the JCP label used in current ads as he greeted about 150 shoppers and Monroeville business leaders.

“Over the next two years, they'll be adding the shops, the wider aisles,” he said, estimating about 20 shops are in the new store, and that will increase to 40 by next summer. A few will be added each quarter.

“As we add new brands, different brands, we'll be able to excite our customers to stay in our stores for a longer period of time,” Hodgkins said.

The new 110,000-square-foot store that occupies part of the former Boscov's anchor space is slightly smaller than the previous Penney's, which closed Sept. 22.

It's one store instead of two, but it has the same volume of merchandise, Hodgkins said.

Penney's CEO Ron Johnson's move in January to replace coupons and frequent sales at the chain's 1,100 stores with lower everyday prices turned off many shoppers.

Sales dropped 23 percent in the May through July quarter, and the company reported a $147 million loss. The company since has tweaked its pricing strategy and brought back clearance sales.

Johnson, a former Apple Inc. executive who joined Penney's in November, now is emphasizing his vision to turn the 110-year-old Plano, Texas-based retailer's stores into clusters of about 100 separate branded shops, instead of standard departments.

Asked if she likes the new pricing, “I do and I don't,” said shopper Millie Onder of Monroeville.

She misses coupons but notices some prices are no different without them.

“Before, you thought you were getting a better deal, but you weren't always,” said her friend Marie Podolak of North Braddock.

The two women started waiting at 7:30 a.m. Friday for the store to open, and they were first in line to get gift cards that could range from $5 to $100, plus a makeup bag from the Sephora shop.

Both were a little disappointed with their $5 cards. But they like the way the new store, which actually opened on Sept. 29, is laid out with prominent Liz Claiborne, Levi's, Nike, Original Arizona Jean Co. logos on walls that set off the brand areas.

Marge Daily did not know about the grand opening, and doesn't like going to the mall.

Still, “this is nice. I wanted to come and check it out and buy a pair of jeans,” the Wilkins resident said as she looked through Lee jeans.

Penney's just-introduced JCP women's and men's private clothing brand is selling well and seems like “what we were missing” in Penney's prior brand lineup, Hodgkins said.

The new store has all new merchandise and fixtures, flat-screen TVs in fitting rooms and a hair salon and twice the number of display mannequins as the old location.

The Levi's shop features Apple iPads where customers can check for jeans in stock by style, color and size and pay for them there, or place an order to be sent to their homes.

In the next three to six months, more of the store's 140 employees will be equipped with iPads to serve customers on the sales floor who want to pay quickly with credit cards instead of waiting at registers.

Registers, in fact, will become scarcer as iPad checkout equipment becomes the standard, Hodgkins said, adding cash drawers could be added to work along with the tablet computers, perhaps in individual departments.

“Who knows what they'll put there?” he said, pointing to a checkout area along a wall. “I envision a coffee bar.”

Plans for the stores continue to evolve, he said.

Penney's has had a store in the mall since it opened in 1969.

Now “it brings a trusted name to this end of the mall, which is going to extend the shopping from one end of the mall to the other,” said Tom Gerber, the mall's general manager since 2004.

Sandy Steele of Lenzner Tours, which has a storefront in a corridor by Penney's, agrees that traffic to that end of the complex should improve. The old Boscov's had been empty for the three years that Lenzner has been at the mall, she said.

The former Penney's in the center of the complex will be renovated to become a Cinemark multiplex movie theater in time for the 2013 holidays. Portions of the building will be torn down, and the rest will be retrofitted for the theater, Gerber said.

Across from the new Penney's, Party City opened a 15,000-square-foot store in August. A Maurice's women's clothing store will open by early November, Gerber said.

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-380-5606 or kleonard@tribweb.com.

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