Byline: Holly Haber

PLANO, Tex.--The people at J.C. Penney Co. knew they had a winner when teenagers walked into the chain's junior departments and asked to see the "Zonz."
What they were talking about were private label jeans that have become one of the brightest jewels in Penney's crown: The Original Arizona Jean Co.
Introduced in 1989 as a test in boys' and young men's, Arizona Jeans was expanded to juniors in 1993. The total business did a retail volume of half a billion dollars last year. Thirty percent of that--some $150 million--came from junior sizes. This year, the junior category of Arizona Jeans is expected to climb to $225 million.
"I don't think any of us going in thought it would be this good," said Steve Jebbia, merchandise manager of junior sportswear.
What has propelled Arizona, Penney's officials said, is that it offers quality jeans at a price that fits the teenage wallet: $19.99.
"For a lot of younger customers, money is an issue," Jebbia pointed out. "They can buy a pair of jeans and a shirt from Arizona for $30. Also, in the Nineties, the customer is less brand conscious."
It helped that Penney's backed the label with marketing clout. It erected Arizona minishops in all of its 1,250 stores and aired a barrage of slick 30-second television spots during key selling periods, such as back-to-school and spring.
Other crucial factors: offering short, average and long lengths and using automatic replenishment to keep sizes 1 to 15 in stock.
Arizona now lays claim to being the biggest private brand in the company, partly because it's the only one that appears in all three apparel divisions--women's, men's and children's. The second largest private brand is Worthington, a women's sportswear and dress line that does more than $450 million in volume.
The Arizona brand comprises a 40 percent chunk of Penney's junior jeans business, which itself has grown by 40 percent in the past two years, said Jebbia.
Penney's other top junior denim labels are Levi Strauss and Bongo. The one casualty of the Arizona onslaught was Lee jeans, which were dropped from the junior departments of about 300 stores. Lee, however, still does robust sales with Penney's in the misses' departments.
Penney's is launching its first scholarship competition this year to keep pushing the brand to young people. Called "Who's Arizona?" the competition challenges students age 13 to 21 to vie for eight $10,000 awards. Penney's executives and Dallas educators and government officials will judge finalists on the basis of scholastic achievement and community involvement.
"It's not a beauty contest," Hailey pointed out. Winners will be featured in Arizona print advertising.
After a successful test in young men's and boys', the Arizona Jeans label was expanded to girl's apparel and infants and finally to juniors.
"We needed a jeanswear brand of our own," explained Jim Hailey, president of the women's division, noting that Penney's already had several successful private labels in women's and men's apparel, namely Worthington and Hunt Club in women's apparel and Stafford in men's wear.
"We were trying to offer comparable construction and fit and get a competitive edge in price," added Phyllisha Jacobs, brand manager of Arizona and Mixed Blues, a junior sportswear collection.
The line is made with some of the same fabrics, stitching and rivets used on leading denim lines, and the classic-fit blue jean has been Arizona's top seller, followed by a relaxed-cut jean. Annually, Penney's sells as many Arizona denim shorts as jeans.
The chain merchandises junior Arizona boutiques with coordinating tops that are a big part of the business and reflect a rugged, basic style. Spring looks include thermal and piqué knit T-shirts merchandised in layers and sleeveless denim and woven cotton tops that retail from $10 to $22. Fall sweaters go up to $30.
The spring palette is soft and pale with such hues as sage, maize, blue, tan, rose and tobacco. Brights will be added for summer. Bottoms are offered in some colors, as well as light and medium blue stonewashes, bleached and indigo blue, black and white.
"It's fashion basics that a teenager is looking for in her wardrobe, but we're not going to do tiny Ts," Jebbia pointed out.
Last fall, Penney's extended the Arizona brand in juniors by adding watches, jewelry, belts, shoes, handbags and backpacks. A $99 varsity wool and pigskin-suede jacket with the Arizona logo was a hit in spite of the sluggish outerwear business.
This year, Penney's would like to offer some jeans styles in the $30 range while maintaining the introductory $19.99 price.
"The denim business has been so good," Jebbia enthused. "And a large portion of the growth within the denim business has been due to Arizona."

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