By  on April 9, 2009

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. is flexing its muscle in young men’s.

In time for the back-to-school selling season, the $18.5 billion retailer will unveil three new brand partnerships in an effort to strengthen its position as a dominant retailer in the young men’s market.

The brands that will hit 600 of Penney’s top doors and online July 11 are: RS by Sheckler, a skate-oriented label from Wicked Fashions and professional skateboarder and MTV reality star Ryan Sheckler; Third Rail, a Zoo York Production from Marc Ecko Enterprises, and Rusty, the popular West Coast-based surf brand.

The trio of brands “fall into the surf/skate, action sports category where we’re severely underrepresented,” said Steve Lawrence, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s.

After Penney’s identified surf/skate as a “growing category,” Lawrence said the retailer “worked diligently to fill the white space” within its stores. Right now, he noted, only Vans fits the bill for this customer.

“We knew that this kid wants to be authentic, core and true,” he added. “That was our criteria, so we landed on these [brands].”

Penney’s, which has about 1,070 stores across the U.S., declined to provide a volume projection for the brands.

The push in young men’s comes at a pivotal time for the Plano, Tex.-based company. Like almost all retailers, the chain has been struggling during the recession and, in February, reported a 51 percent drop in fourth-quarter profits to $211 million, down from $430 million a year ago. Sales declined 9.9 percent to $5.76 billion from $6.39 billion. Comparable-store sales in the quarter fell 10.8 percent. For the year, income decreased 48.5 percent to $572 million from $1.11 billion in 2007. Sales were down 6.9 percent to $18.49 billion from $19.86 billion.

Lawrence said the company’s overall men’s business is “mirroring the store” with value pricing and innovative merchandise being the two key drivers of sales.

Men’s apparel and accessories overall account for 19 percent of Penney’s business, according to its 2008 10K filing. Although the firm does not break out figures for specific categories such as young men’s, it has traditionally been an area of strength. Penney’s ranks second in market share in young men’s after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and third in overall men’s after Wal-Mart and Macy’s Inc., according to NPD Group research data. “But we’re about neck-and-neck with Macy’s,” Lawrence said.

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