PLANO, Tex. — Fashion jewelry is a key part of J.C. Penney’s strategy to turn around its business and freshen up its image.

This spring, Penney’s allotted 20 percent more space and at least 33 percent more inventory to the category, which generally has higher margins than other fashion sectors and is often an impulse purchase.

To make the department more enticing, Penney vastly updated the styling of its jewelry and took it out of cases to dangle in open-sell fixtures in all 1,017 stores. The result: fashion jewelry is now the top seller within accessories and one of the highest margin producers in the company.

The overhaul, completed through a massive remodeling effort in June, culminates a strategy announced in January to begin offering trendy styles in renovated jewelry departments. Fashion styles now account for about 60 percent of the business. In contrast, basics made up about 70 percent of sales 10 months ago. The category boasts prime center-court real estate, some of which had been devoted to cosmetics, and jewelry departments average 1,400 square feet in Penney’s top 500 stores.

“Sales results have far exceeded expectations,” said Cindy O’Connor, divisional vice president and merchandise manager of women’s accessories. She cited increases in “high-double digits,” but declined to specify, in accordance with company policy. Penney’s is also working to build momentum by featuring jewelry as part of complete looks in its advertising circulars and direct mail, a new strategy launched last spring.

In addition, styles deemed top trends are pictured on posters in the stores — called “Hot Spots” in Penney’s logo — and instantly become top sellers. These displays are changed about every four to eight weeks.

O’Connor joined Penney’s last September from The Limited, where she served as vice president of women’s tops and ready-to-wear and previously as vice president of women’s accessories.

“My top priority [at Penney’s] was to get us on trend, on time,” O’Connor said. “We were great at basics, but we weren’t good at fashion and trend. We revamped the entire vendor-supplier structure — I introduced the buying team to new suppliers that I knew from my past. With this structure we started to do key item presentations, which we could not do before. We had a big change in personnel…and I’ve had complete support from the top down. Nobody has said no to anything.”To update the mix, O’Connor moved high-end sterling styles, priced from $100 to $180, to fine jewelry. She picked up the brand 1928 and introduced jewelry under two of Penney’s exclusive brands: Mixit, a contemporary private label, and Bisou Bisou, a brand that Penney’s began selling exclusively this spring.

Recent bestsellers have been Mixit shell pendants, chandelier earrings and stretch bracelets, glitzy crystal evening styles by Viesce, a private brand, and colorful styles from Crazy Horse by Liz Claiborne, which is exclusive to Penney. Most Mixit and Viesce pieces are priced from $9 to $15, while Crazy Horse is usually $12 to $20. Penney also carries lots of inexpensive unbranded sterling, such as chain necklaces, rings and charms.

Basics, such as gold-tone hoop and stud earrings by Monet 2 and Napier, are still a significant presence, but they are typically displayed in the rear of the department. Overall, fashion jewelry'smost productive price range is $9.99 to $12.99.

For fall, Penney’s is pushing metal, such as silver necklaces dangling coins; silver hoop and chain-fringe dangle earrings, and bibs that feature a lattice of wire and faux semiprecious stones. Bisou Bisou’s collection is full of black stones, antiqued silver and charms.

Other accessories areas are also slated for a makeover. O’Connor plans by next spring to spruce up handbag departments with new fixtures and to maximize business in summer items, such as sunglasses, hats and flip-flops, which she deemed “a big second-quarter opportunity.”

“The whole fashion accessories area is underdeveloped and has nothing but opportunity ahead of it,” O’Connor said. “It’s about presenting dominant statements, which is really challenging. [In that department] you can have fixtures of belts, scarves, neckerchiefs, and it can look very over-assorted. We edited in order to take some things and make them bigger. As [company chairman] Allen Questrom always says, ‘Be dominant or don’t do it.’ Some of the businesses could potentially double. Key items, that is how you do it in the accessories business.”

Unlike Penney’s strategy in women’s apparel, O’Connor is not on a mission to pick up well-known brands.“I think we have a nice blend of national brands, private label and proprietary brands, like Bisou Bisou,” she said. “In accessories, the product drives the consumer decision more than the brand does. Have the right merchandise is more important, particularly in belts or hats or scarves or jewelry. Style drives your decision. In handbags, labels are not as important in moderate as they are in designer.”

O’Connor said she’s pleased with the handbag department overall, though she sees a need in the tote selection. The chain added Bisou Bisou-brand studded leather bags this spring, and its top three brands are Mixit, Crazy Horse and Relic a national brand, which all average $25 to $30. Penney’s also sells bags by private labels Worthington and St. John’s Bay, as well as national brands such as Stone Mountain and Tignanello.

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