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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Happy Chic is one of the newly completed shops within the J.C. Penney at Glenbrook Square.

Changing for the better

J.C. Penney bouncing back after switching policies hurt bottom line

Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Emily Stephens is a frequent shopper at J.C. Penney and browses one of the new shops within the store.
Customers check out the new offerings in the Bodum shop, one of the many new shops within J.C. Penney.

J.C. Penney doesn’t have sales.

No, wait, it sort of does.

Uh, scratch that. It does have sales and of course – coupons.

Flip-flopping aside, the retailer from Plano, Texas, remains one of Glenbrook Square’s key anchors as it occupies more than 15 percent or 191,000 square feet at the Fort Wayne shopping center.

And even with the pending September arrival of a Carson’s department store at the former Marshall Field’s, Glenbrook General Manager Brian Cote said Penney’s remains important to the area’s retail landscape. The company must feel the same way as it is renovating the mall store with its shops-within-stores concept that involves separate areas to hawk popular brand items.

Ironically, the new format came about the same time as the retailer showed CEO Ron Johnson the door earlier this month. He served just 16 months, but his turnaround plan – which included shedding store sales in favor of everyday low prices – failed. The company backtracked a bit and began to offer some sales, but the damage was done.

Penney’s rehired Johnson’s predecessor, Mike Ullman, who will reinstate familiar promotions like back-to-school sales and coupon advertising in newspapers. Penney officials are confident going forward.

“The return of our former CEO should not present any confusion to our customers,” spokeswoman Sarah Holland said in an email. “J.C. Penney has already started incorporating sales and coupons as part of our promotional efforts to entice customers to shop with us more often. The company will continue to deliver the style, quality and value our customers expect from J.C. Penney.”

Cote said he understands consumers’ interest in the retailer.

“It’s only natural,” he said, adding people want to know what’s happening with their favorite stores. “Penney’s has been an extremely strong anchor here. Fort Wayne is lucky to have such (retail) diversity. I think it bodes well when bigger anchors believe in the market.”

Cote declined to provide lease revenue generated by Penney’s. The store has been at the mall since 1976. There are 30 locations in Indiana.

Outside of Fort Wayne, the nearest is in Huntington.

Residing on Huntington’s busiest thoroughfare, North Jefferson Street, Penney’s is the anchor tenant at Huntington Plaza. The strip mall is about as big as Fort Wayne’s Penney store. The retailer occupies 25,000 square feet at the location.

Property manager Tom Hughes said it is easily one of the most well-traveled spots in town.

Fort Wayne retiree Tom Hetrick said he hasn’t kept up with the retailer on the pages of Wall Street, but on Main Street.

“When I come into a store I want to see those red sales signs,” said Hetrick, 55, who shopped at Penney’s last week. “I don’t like to shop, so when I do I want to see those 30 percent and 50 percent off signs. It catches your eye.”

Fellow customer Judy Bowyer agrees. The 71-year-old from Columbia City said she doesn’t believe in everyday low prices.

“In this economy, people are looking for sales,” she said. “That’s why I come here. When I go to Kohl’s, that’s what I see.”

Critics said Penney’s has done a good job of irritating shoppers who turned their backs on the department store chain – sales dropped 25 percent last year. Penney’s annual revenue slipped to $13 billion last year, the lowest since at least 1987.

Retail analyst Grant Cardone of Miami Beach, Fla., said the business only has itself to blame.

“You just can’t stop doing what you’ve been doing for years and come back and expect everybody to be all happy about it,” said Cardone, New York Times best-selling author of the book, “If You’re Not First, You’re Last.”

More than worrying about sales, however, Cardone said Penney’s, and other similar retailers need to pay more attention to customer service.

“I don’t care how cheap something is if there is nobody talking to customers, no engagement,” he said.

Consumers don’t just want to save money, they want to feel welcome when they walk into stores, Cardone said.

“People need to be greeted,” he said. “They need to know they’re welcome.”