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Signs of life at JC Penney

Stock rise, revenue gains raise hope the worst is over

– The worst may be over at J.C. Penney Co.

The beleaguered department store chain Tuesday reported its sixth straight quarter of big losses and steep revenue drops as it continued to face challenges related to a botched turnaround plan spearheaded by its ousted CEO Ron Johnson.

But investors sent Penney shares up 6 percent to nearly $14 – after having pushed the stock down nearly 70 percent in the last 18 months – in an expression of confidence that returning CEO Mike Ullman has started to stabilize the business.

Since he retook the top job in April after having occupied it from 2004 to 2011, Ullman has been bringing back coupons, frequent sales events and basic merchandise like khakis and jeans that Johnson eliminated in a failed attempt to attract hipper, more affluent shoppers. The latest report offered some encouraging signs that the move is beginning to pay off.

Revenue improved from month-to-month during the second quarter, and the decline in Penney’s online business slowed significantly in part because of the company’s move to veer from Johnson’s strategy and go back to operating its online businesses with its physical stores in lockstep.

The chain also said it is seeing an encouraging start to the back-to-school season, the second-largest selling period behind the winter holidays.

Bernard Sosnick, a retail analyst at Gilford Securities, said based on the results, he expects Penney to get back to profitability by the fourth quarter.

He also said he wouldn’t be surprised if during the first half of next year, the chain posted sales increases of 10 percent to 15 percent.

Ullman, however, took a more cautiously optimistic tone in his call with investors Tuesday. He wouldn’t promise that Penney would see a revenue gain in the current quarter, saying that August, the first month of the third quarter, will be difficult since business is being compared with a year ago when Penney drove customers in with free haircuts.

Indeed, Penney has a lot of work left to do. In the three-month period that ended Aug. 3, Penney lost $586 million, or $2.66 a share. That compares with a loss of $147 million, or 67 cents a share, a year earlier. Revenue was $2.66 billion, down 11.9 percent from $3.02 billion. Analysts were expecting a $1.07-a-share loss on revenue of $2.77 billion.

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