- J.C. Penney is launching a line of outerwear for men through its St. John's Bay private label, according to a press release.
- St. John's Bay Outdoor launches at 600 of the retailer's stores beginning Thursday. It includes shirts, jackets, pants, vests, sweaters and other performance products.
- Along with the new line, Penney plans to open a store-within-a-store concept called the Outdoor Shop in 100 stores that features St. John's Bay Outdoor products as well as items from American Threads, The American Outdoorsman and Hi-Tec. The Outdoor Shop will launch in select stores and the J.C. Penney's website on Oct. 4.
Penney chief merchant Michelle Wlazlo, a former Target merchandising exec who joined the department store chain earlier this year, said the company was trying to "tak[e] part in the nearly $900 billion outdoor recreation industry."
Men's apparel has been a relative strength for Penney in recent quarters, with activewear, and big and tall categories performing well.
The new line marks an effort to expand Penney's reach and keep current — the kind of thing the retailer has been criticized for not doing in years past. In women's apparel especially, Penney has struggled to stay relevant. It fell behind the curve on women's apparel, missing the shift to more casual and activewear products.
CEO Jill Soltau is under pressure to end the cycle of fashion misses and subsequent discounting that preceded her hire. To that end, she's brought in a new merchandising team that includes Wlazlo as well as former Guess exec Ejarque Lopez, who now leads Penney's women's category, and Jeff Useforge, who oversees men's and children's. Together, the team has already succeeded in reducing Penney's inventory pile ups, but not — so far — in increasing the retailer's sales.
Penney will have to compete with plenty of specialists in the outdoor space, among them REI, The North Face, Dick's, Patagonia, Orvis and others. But as outdoor experiences become more important to consumers, Penney likely can't afford to miss out on another fashion trend.
The clock is ticking for Soltau and her team, and she has assured investors that she has a sense of urgency. While analysts see Penney as having the liquidity to meet its long-term financial obligations, its sales trends are still negative, and its debt load leaves it little cash or wriggle room to invest and take risks. Looking at Penney's constraints, troubled sector and macroeconomic risks, S&P analysts recently downgraded the retailer for the second time this year.