JCP flashes some Apple magic

JCPenney is not dead yet. New shops and free haircuts may help.

Retail pundits eager to write JCPenney’s obituary may want to wait until after the back-to-school season as the struggling retailer revealed several intriguing merchandising moves reminiscent of the tactics CEO Ron Johnson employed during his tenure running Apple stores. And in an unconventional buzz-building, traffic generating move the company said it would offer free haircuts to kids at its salons throughout August.

The most notable of the changes involved the remodeling of the men’s department at 700 stores to create the first installment of a brand shop concept that is at the core of Johnson’s strategy to transform JCPenney. The new brand shop will redefine the way customers find the ultimate pair of jeans and features the largest assortment of Levi’s denim the retailer has ever offered. The product lineup will feature 11 fits and 88 washes with most priced at roughly $40. To allow customers to access an even broader assortment, each Denim Bar will be equipped with iPads.

And in a nod to Apple, the Levi shop will include a Denim Bar staffed by fit experts to help customers find the perfect pair of jeans. The concept is similar to the Genius Bar in Apple stores where devotees of Apple products can receive help and training from experts. Denim Bar employees also will be able to process transactions from mobile devices as is the case in Apple stores.

 “The Levi’s brand epitomizes classic American style and effortless cool,” said Liz Sweney, JCPenney’s chief merchandising officer. “We kept this spirit in mind when we envisioned a new way to shop for Levi’s jeanswear inside JCPenney. Now, customers can pull up a stool at one of our Levi’s Denim Bars and work with a specialist to choose from a curated selection of Levi’s jeans that best expresses their personal style.”

In addition to the Levis shop, the company unveiled shops featuring house brand The Original Arizona Jean Co. and a new exclusive brand called i jeans by Buffalo. The Arizona brand has been around for decades and serves as a value oriented brand while i jeans by Buffalo is a premium offering said to bring the latest European trends into a comprehensive collection of sportswear, outerwear, accessories and denim that features quality fabrics and trims, exceptional fits and design details.

The introduction of the new shops could be just what JCPenney needs to restore sales growth following an abysmal first quarter that saw same store sales declined nearly 19%. Expectations are low second quarter results due out Aug. 10 will be much better. The sales impact of the new shops concepts won’t be evident until the third quarter and by that time the company also plans to unveil three new women shops. Next up in September are shops from Liz Claiborne, IZOD and an all new private brand called “jcp” focused on high quality fashion basics.