J.C. Penney (JCP) CEO: Black Friday 'Off to a Great Start' - TheStreet

On Black Friday, TheStreet caught up with J.C. Penney (JCP) - Get Report CEO Marvin Ellison to discuss how the holiday season has started off.

Ellison, who worked in stores on Thanksgiving, was heartened by the strong early turn-out and purchasing activity by J.C. Penney's customers. He also discussed sales of winter apparel and his company's plans to distinguish its online offerings from what it sells in-store.

TheStreet: Do you think you have won Black Friday due to the robust crowds for the 3 p.m. opening?

Marvin Ellison: I would say we are very pleased with the start, we think we are off to a great start. I was out early yesterday, we saw lines forming early around the country. We had strong sales in store and strong sales online. We'll see how the rest of the weekend plays out.

TheStreet: How do you explain an economically sensitive J.C. Penney customer continuing to come out strong to your stores over the past two quarters?

Ellison: I have always thought of J.C. Penney as a retailer that has historically done a really nice job of serving that economically sensitive customer segment. Over the course of the leadership transition and the failed strategies of prior management, the company just lost its way from serving that customer.

For the last twelve months, I have personally been relentlessly focused on speaking to that customer and trying to make sure we are offering great value. We are pleased we have started to see that customer come back, and we think we are at the early stages of that. This is a huge demographic that I grew up in -- this is my household. I think we are at the early stages of tapping back into this customer.

TheStreet: You worked in the store on Thanksgiving; where did you see people spending the most aggressively?

Ellison: What I saw was a lot of boot sales, we had really strong sales -- the $19.99 boots were a huge hit. The small kitchen electrics were a large hit as well, it's great gift-giving item. Luggage was a bit of pleasant surprise, a trend we saw occurring around the entire country. Bedding and home was huge as well. We were pleased across the board.

TheStreet: Retailers have had trouble selling winter apparel due to the warm weather this fall. Did customers start to buy these items on Thanksgiving and today?

Ellison: Where we have had closer to seasonal weather, our apparel sales are strong. But where we are seeing these warmer temperatures, the apparel sales are not as strong. But now that we are in the holiday season, most of these apparel categories will become gift-gifting categories. Overall, we are pleased with the trends we are starting to see; we just have to manage the business well for December and January.

TheStreet: J.C. Penney made some nice bets in toys this year, and we even saw drones on the sales floor. How do you assess your toy business right now?

Ellison: It's early for us. Toys is one of the things we are going to get intentional about. We have this great partnership with Disney (DIS) - Get Report , and I think that was reflected in the store yesterday. I saw so many families in the Disney area picking up items.

We stuck our toe in the water with the drones to see what the response would be from customers and see if it would help us chart a course in the future in this category. I think you will see us be a lot more aggressive in categories like drones online -- in the past we have been very traditional online, meaning we sell what we have in the store online.

You will see us be a lot more aggressive online with category extensions and with products we don't sell in the store. That has already started to happen, but it will happen more in earnest in 2016.