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Penney to bring back 'clearance' designation

Department store revamps approach to sales -- again

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Beginning Aug. 1, J.C. Penney will eliminate one of the monthly sales. Penney also plans to tweak its advertising to better communicate the pricing plan to customers.

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NEW YORK -- J.C. Penney is changing its pricing -- again.

Just six months after the mid-priced department store chain got rid of the hundreds of sales it offered each year in favor of everyday lower pricing, it is reversing course.

Penney on Feb. 1 began using a three-tier pricing approach that called for consistently lower daily prices, month-long sales, and periodic discounts on merchandise throughout the year. But starting Aug. 1, Penney will eliminate one of the monthly sales and bring back the word "clearance." Penney also plans to tweak its advertising to better communicate the pricing plan to customers.

The moves occur as shoppers -- and investors -- voice confusion over Penney's pricing strategy, which was spearheaded by Ron Johnson when he took over as chief executive officer in November.

In May, Penney's stock plunged nearly 20 percent, its biggest decline in four decades, after the retailer posted a larger-than-expected quarterly loss and a 20 percent drop in revenue on poor reception from shoppers for its pricing strategy.

The change also calls into question how patient Main Street and Wall Street will be with Mr. Johnson, a longtime retail executive who won praise as the mastermind behind the success of Apple Inc.'s retail stores and Target Corp.'s cheap-chic strategy. The pricing plan is presenting a challenge for Mr. Johnson because it's turning out to be a tough sell to shoppers who have come to expect deep discounts and investors who are looking for Penney to turn around its business quickly.

Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst for research firm NBG Productions, said because Mr. Johnson's strategy is long-term, investors likely will give him at least until 2013 to prove himself.

"With a visionary type of strategy like this you have to take a lot of painful medicine upfront," he said, adding that Mr. Johnson "is essentially trying to change the consumer mind-set."

Mr. Johnson, who asked investors to be patient during a meeting with them in May, said he's confident that the pricing strategy will work. Mr. Johnson has acknowledged that Penney has a long way to go to convince shoppers that they don't have to wait for sales to get low prices at Penney, and he said this week that Penney's first-quarter sales drop is "the price we're paying to get integrity back."

"We thought simplifying 590 unique sale events into three types of pricing would be easier, but it turns out … customers and others found the pricing a little confusing," he said. "Now we're going from 590 to 3 to 1: The first price is the right price."

Under the new system, Penney is keeping "Every Day" low prices that are consistently 40 percent lower than regular prices before the company eliminated sales. That level of pricing has accounted for about 70 percent of sales since the company began the new strategy, Penney said

It also will keep its periodic discounting events, which make up 15 percent of sales, but increase their frequency to every Friday. The company will also change the name of them from "Best Price" to "Clearance." And Penney will get rid of "Month Long" deals, which account for 15 percent of sales.

Mr. Johnson said the new approach should make the pricing plan easier for customers to understand.

"We thought: 'Why are we trying to teach customers a new language to shop?' " he said. "We're just trying to be straightforward."

To go along with the new pricing, the company will tweak its ads.

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