By  on March 3, 2006

NEW YORK — The J.C. Penney Experience pop-up store that opens today at 1 Times Square is as much a showcase for technology as it is for the company's branding campaign.

Twenty-two Internet kiosks throughout the 15,000-square-foot space allow shoppers to purchase — but not take home with them — the company's total merchandise offering. Scattered throughout the virtual store's three levels are 42-inch plasma screens from NEC, pulsing with TV spots that will bow with Sunday's Academy Awards broadcast.

Some 60 miles of cable run through the building, powering Internet connections, audio, lighting and video — and the 30,000 square feet of graphics on the building's famous exterior.

What's missing are cash registers, said Tim Lyons, a Penney spokesman. All purchases made on the touch-screen kiosks will be fulfilled through Penney's electronic commerce infrastructure, which now supports $1 billion in annual online sales.

The virtual store's reliance on Penney's electronic commerce platform will highlight the strength of that channel, another spokesman said, and enable the company to track and analyze customer behavior in ways that are not possible in a traditional store.

"I think this is a recognition that storefronts aren't necessarily how you deliver customers the best service," said Karl Bjornson, a retail specialist at Kurt Salmon Associates who has consulted on pop-up stores since 2003. "I've been after retailers in New York to do this for a long time," he added.

The virtual store, open until March 26, may face some challenges, however.

"It's probably one of the most visible buildings in the world, but one of the most difficult buildings [for pedestrians] to get to," said Kenneth Nisch, chairman of JGA, a Southfield, Mich., retail design firm. "It sits in a sea of probably the busiest traffic you can think of, coming in all directions."

JGA designed the Warner Bros. Studio store that once occupied the same space as Penney's virtual store. JGA also designed the Times Square Hershey store and a virtual store in Hong Kong that relied on kiosks and Internet-based fulfillment.

Nisch said Penney may be missing an opportunity for repeat store visits by fulfilling orders exclusively through the Internet. Had Penney offered the option for shoppers to ship their purchases to another Penney store for pickup, for example, it might reap additional sales. The Hong Kong cyber mall offers this option.

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