Made for Manhattan

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After spending the better part of the last decade updating itself, J.C. Penney Co. has finally set up shop in the Big Apple. Although the retailer maintained its corporate headquarters in Manhattan from 1914 to 1988 (before relocating to Plano, Texas), the store is a first.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Penney chairman and CEO Myron (Mike) Ullman III, at the July opening. “This is a big step for J.C. Penney.”

The 153,000-sq.-ft. store is in Manhattan Mall on Sixth Avenue and 33rd Street—just a block away from Macy’s giant flagship. It occupies the center’s lower three levels (with two floors of selling space, and a third with offices and stockrooms) and can be reached by escalators or elevator from the mall’s ground level. It is directly accessible from a subway station and from a commuter train station that serves New Jersey. More than 250,000 people pass through the two stations daily.

Penney’s Manhattan outpost is targeted at an enormous customer base that includes local residents, commuters, business travelers and tourists. It is designed to move shoppers in and out quickly and efficiently via a combination of the latest technology and an array of services. Streamlined checkouts, interactive store directories and a heavy investment in personnel (500 associates in all) add to the convenience factor. Shoppers can place orders or pick up items ordered online or from the catalog at dedicated desks. LED-illuminated wayfinding signs make it easy to navigate the space.

“This is definitely not your mother’s J.C. Penney,” Ullman said.

To speed the transaction process, there are 95 checkouts and an electronic queuing system that directs customers to available registers and informs them of estimated wait times. Penney initially tried the system, from Lawrence Metal Products, in one of its stores in Texas.

“We had great success with it there and after we made the change, our customer satisfaction rose 12 points, which is tremendous,” John Wise, VP and director store design, J.C. Penney, told Chain Store Age. “If it succeeds here, and we know it will, we hope to roll it out to more stores moving forward.”

The interior is bright and colorful, with contemporary decor elements (the store was designed in-house at Penney, with assistance from outside consultants, including Design Forum, Dayton, Ohio). Light-reflecting floating ceiling panels provide a sense of added height on the sales floor (the ceilings are 8 ft. throughout).

“We didn’t want shoppers to feel closed in, so we hung panels at different levels to give the ceiling depth,” Wise said.

Color-coded columns mark the different departments. Brand names are wrapped around the columns, which have faux-brick wallpaper that add a city-loft feel. More than 1,000 new merchandise display fixtures were created or customized for the store, with an eye toward allowing greater merchandise capacity, and to making the space easy to shop and navigate.

Other elements unique to the Manhattan location include a specially designed shopping bag with the letters “NYC” inside the JCPenney logo. The retailer is also offering local delivery service ($15 for basic service).

The Manhattan store reflects Penney’s evolution during the past several years from a dowdy, vanilla-box retailer with a conservative fashion mind-set to a contemporary-fashion chain that combines affordability with the latest styles. The chain now carries exclusive lines, private labels and updated home furnishings from well-known designers such as Nicole Miller, Polo Ralph Lauren and Chris Madden, and in-store Sephora boutiques. Lines by Charlotte Ronson and Kimora Lee Simmons add younger, edgier appeal. Two new exclusive brands—a home line from Cindy Crawford and a menswear line from Joseph Abboud—are making their debut in the Manhattan location, which also boasts a 2,000-sq.-ft. Sephora.

“It took more than a hundred years for J.C. Penney to get to Manhattan, and now more than ever, the time is right,” Ullman said.

But will shoppers in what is arguably the nation’s fashion capital buy the new Penney? Penney is betting they will and reportedly expects the store to be its largest sales generator. Industry expert Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Research, a New York City-based retail consulting firm, thinks the chain faces two main challenges doing business in the Big Apple. One is finding the right balance merchandise-wise for such a diverse group of shoppers. The other is one that could ultimately prove even more daunting, and it has to do with the store’s real estate.

“The space itself is a challenge due to the nature of the mall,” Liebmann explained. “In theory, it’s a great location, but Manhattan Mall has been a challenging space from the beginning. Penney has done the best they could do with the available space, but it still takes some of the air out of the experience.”

But Liebmann welcomes the chain’s arrival, saying it will help “juice up” the competition.

“Conceptually, having Penney in the city gives mid-level shoppers, who either live here or work here, an option that isn’t Macy’s,” she said. “It heats up the competitive environment and gives shoppers more choices in that particular area, which is a good thing.”