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On the Front Line at J.C. Penney

NEW YORK -- Is it that bad being a store manager, considered one of the toughest jobs in retailing? Not at all for Joe Cardamone, store manager of the J.C. Penney in the Bay Plaza Mall, by Co-op City in The Bronx. He is running one of the...

NEW YORK — Is it that bad being a store manager, considered one of the toughest jobs in retailing? Not at all for Joe Cardamone, store manager of the J.C. Penney in the Bay Plaza Mall, by Co-op City in The Bronx. He is running one of the best-performing stores in the chain.

Cardamone works 60-hour weeks, walks the floor about 80 percent of the time, must maintain a staff of 300 Monday through Sunday — it swells to 500 for the holiday season — and deals head-on with the often-impatient public. Not to mention Penney’s move to centralized merchandising, which two years ago stripped Cardamone and the other 1,073 Penney’s store managers of autonomy in selecting products, forcing many to leave or be retrained.

Yet Cardamone said, “I’ve been in this business for 28 years and I’m having more fun. I don’t have to worry about buying merchandise anymore. I can concentrate on maintaining the standards and on what it takes to make the sales plan and the profit plan.”

With Penney’s not yet half way through its five-year turnaround effort, the pressure to perform at the store level is as intense as ever, and that’s why first thing each morning Cardamone checks the daily sheet for the sales results.

“Then it’s out here on the floor,” he said. “For a good part of the morning, I’m monitoring the flow of goods on the floor. I will not go back to my office until the middle of the day. There’s not much to do there anymore.”

The 187,000-square-foot, three-level store ranks in the top 10 percentile for the Penney’s chain, last year posting $334 in sales per square foot, compared with the average unit, which does $154 in per square foot, including revenues generated through catalogs sales at zip codes assigned to stores.

The Bronx store also ranks as among the chain’s top unit for selling kitchen appliances, women’s large sizes, and big and tall men’s wear, and other categories are starting to show higher grades, like towels, where there’s a noticeably cleaner, colorful and neater presentation. Towels, well-positioned right off the escalator, are posting 30 percent plus increases this year, after 2 to 3 percent drops last year, according to Cardamone.

For Penney’s three-day anniversary sale last April, the store surpassed its $1 million goal, though Cardamone declined to specify by how much.

Having a Super K in the same mall hasn’t hurt Penney’s in the Bronx, with Kmart wounded by its bankruptcy. However, Vanessa Castagna, president and chief operating officer of Penney’s stores, catalog and Internet, said the Bronx unit “has always been a premium store for J.C. Penney, but it’s been helped tremendously through the changes we’ve implemented there.”

Leading a tour of the store with Cardamone to show off what’s been done, Castagna said the Bronx store has been boosted by Penney’s “box one” program featuring the latest the retailer has to offer in layout, decor, graphics, fixturing and merchandising formats.

Elements of box one have been introduced this year to all stores, in varying degrees, though Castagna stressed that’s just part of Penney’s turnaround efforts. The store in the Bronx has a heavy dose of box one. It focuses on merchandising clarity, easier shopping and item intensity, fewer stockkeeping units, fewer price points, larger graphics, and displaying outfits to encourage multiple sales. Sprinkled in several departments are “hot spots,” utilizing the best real estate to promote key items, such as capris, tank tops and shorts. Also, in fashion areas, there are coordinated outfits displayed on the outside of aisles.

“The fashion statements are more powerful, larger and easier to replenish,” Castagna said. “There’s clarity, from the aisles to the walls. Where we have T-shirts, it’s Ts, from the aisle to the wall. This store is a great example of best practices.”

Castagna is the Penney’s executive most responsible for orchestrating centralization, reshaping how the buying and merchandising is done, and reshaping Cardamone’s job and thousands of other jobs in the organization. It was a difficult process, and Castagna didn’t make any friends along the way, certainly among store managers.

“Their wings have been clipped,” said retail analyst Walter Loeb of Loeb Associates. “The store manager is no longer the kingpin of the store. Management has taken away their selection of merchandise, which originally was one of the exciting parts of the job. The central administration has much more to say. It’s a more controlled environment, but Penney’s is doing a much more meaningful classification presentation, whether its clam-digger jeans, whatever. They are doing a better job highlighting what is important.”

Even without selecting the goods, “a very good store manager could mean at least five percentage points to that store’s success,” said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies, Kurt Salmon Associates. “If a Penney’s store was operating at 2 percent sales gain, a top store manager could push that to 5 to 7 percent,” by working on such everyday issues as customer service, staff attendance and keeping the store clean.

“A good general manager can be like a local ringmaster. Human relations is a big part of running a store. You’ve got to have a feeling for the staff, and for the peaks and valleys of store traffic. It’s a complicated job. It’s running your own business without complete control over all of the variables. You’ve got budgetary restraints, inventory restraints. The store manager is one of the unsung potential heroes in the retail equation today, even though most stores operate on a more centralized system than before.” Job changes and the new demands that store managers faced become more palatable when the store performs well, Aronson added.

Typically, store managers earn annual salaries of $90,000 to $150,000, plus a bonus, depending on the store’s size and volume, though huge downtown flagships command larger salaries, said Robert Kerson, president of the global retail practice of Korn/Ferry International and a former retailer with store line experience before going into the search business.

As a store manager, Kerson explained: “You’ve got all of the responsibility and none of the authority. You have responsibility for maintaining staff seven days a week, which is difficult. You are at the mercy of buyers for merchandise flows, the marketing department for advertising, and you should be very visible in the community, with charity events and fashion shows so the manager becomes a major personality in the community. If you are a Neiman Marcus store manager, you put a premium on service and presentation. A Penney’s manager puts a premium on driving revenues, but they still have to maintain standards. Penney’s is starting to show improved results due to the changes.”

The biggest change, said Cardamone, is how he allocates his time on the job.

“The majority is spent training people to do their job, getting the merchandise out and presenting it the way the company wants, and leading the team to do a good job selling it,” he said. “Before, most of my time was spent actually buying the merchandise, and there was not a whole lot of time spent selling it to the customer. Penney’s would show it to us over a video-conferencing system, and then we would pick out quantities, what we wanted to carry. There were times it would take at least 95 percent of the day. A buying process for a season could last upwards of two weeks, and that was just the initial shot. All the time, you had to keep up with what was selling and what wasn’t, making markdown decisions.

“Now the company does that through systems. They track that for us. Now we are in our second year of transition with all of the new programs.”

Cardamone, a 28-year veteran of Penney’s, has been running the Bronx store for about three years and previously managed Penney’s units in Clifton, N.Y., a suburb of Albany, and in Dubois, Pa. He credited the success of the store to the staff — which he says mirrors the ethnically diverse makeup of the surrounding middle-income community, where many Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Eastern Europeans, Russians, African-Americans and Caucasians live — and the fact that he can spend more time with his people.

On the staff, 19 different languages are spoken and when a customer who doesn’t speak English seeks help, chances are someone on staff can translate for assistance. The beauty salon, Cardamone noted, has eight multilingual stylists, and charge applications, gift cards and return policies are communicated in English and Spanish.

“Our replenishment staff, visual people and sales associates work together,” said Cardamone, who has an assistant store manager and eight department managers reporting to him, while he reports to district manager Gail Trippodi, who supervises a total of 11 stores, located on Long Island, in Queens, in Danbury and Milford, Conn., as well as the Bronx store, the only Penney’s in that borough.

The store has 135,000 square feet for selling, and the nonselling space includes shoe storage, a lunchroom, offices and receiving — so there’s little storage space, making it necessary to get the merchandise off the delivery trucks and onto the floor as efficiently as possible. There are three to four truck deliveries daily, around 20 a week.

“We really don’t have a stockroom,” Cardamone noted. “It’s important to get out the merchandise and get it together on the selling floor.”

The principal private brands at the store are St. John’s Bay, Worthington and Arizona. Other important brands evident at the store are Evan-Picone, Jones Wear, Crazy Horse, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, Sag Harbor, Mixit, Alfred Dunner, Norton McNaughton, Koret, Chaus & Co., Lee, Blassport and Dockers.

Cleaning up the floor, unloading the merchandise and restocking the shelves is what’s known as the recovery.

“We recover all the time,” Cardamone said, meaning the focus on the presentation never stops. “It’s a matter of keeping up with it all day. If you do that, the recovery time is very minimal.”

How fast is the recovery? “We’re open for business until 9 p.m., and all of our employees are out by 9:30,” Cardamone said.”””