J.C. Penney (JCP) was the surprising winner of last year's holiday season, as an extra early opening on Thanksgiving Day followed by several weeks of the consistent marketing of deals to price sensitive consumers led to a cheery 4.1% jump in fourth quarter same-store sales.
Although it will be difficult to replicate such a stunning sales performance for a department store this time around, J.C. Penney executives are clearly not shy in trying to make it happen. In addition to opening again at 3:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day this year -- while mall rivals Macy's (M) and Sears (SHLD) open at 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., respectively -- J.C. Penney is fresh off launching a new low price guarantee for its national brands such as Nike (NKE) .
To speed up what J.C. Penney admits was a painfully slow checkout process last year, it has replaced 7,000 cash registers out of a total of 26,000 company-wide. Those registers that didn't get replaced received a systems upgrade to improve checkout efficiency. The company also added 18,000 new scanning guns at its registers that allow for the scanning of coupons -- beloved by its price conscious customers -- on the J.C. Penney mobile app. A year ago, it didn't have that capability.
Those product categories, such as big and tall sizes, that have been such a hit among J.C. Penney's middle America shoppers received extra inventory so the company doesn't miss out on sales during the holidays. Meanwhile, roughly 200 J.C. Penney stores are now able to ship product directly from stores to service orders placed online. All 1,000 J.C. Penney stores nationwide also offer consumers the capability to buy something online, and have it picked up same-day in-store within four hours.
Despite the operational improvements, J.C. Penney is fully aware that they won't mean much if it's not out there being ultra competitive on price in weekly circulars. "I think we are coming to the market with an exceptional value, and we understand our place in this market is a value retailer," explained J.C. Penney Executive Vice President of Stores Joe McFarland in an interview with TheStreet. "When you look at our advertising this year, it's a different message compared to last year -- it's more focused on value," says McFarland, a veteran retail executive who joined the company in January after working alongside CEO Marvin Ellison during their stints at home improvement retailer Home Depot (HD) .
For instance, J.C. Penney's Black Friday circular is highlighting bathroom towels for $2.99 and a $293 washing machine. Last year, J.C. Penney didn't sell appliances, but this year they have washers, dryers, dishwashers and refrigerators in over 500 stores.
Tons of shoppers lined up for J.C. Penney's early Thanksgiving opening last year