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J.C. Penney’s Nickelson Wooster Stresses the Importance of Merchandise

The senior vice president of product development and design believes that if merchandise is irresistible to shoppers, it will sell.

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Men'sWeek issue 03/28/2013

The secret to success at retail is simple: “Make cute sh-t.”

This story first appeared in the March 28, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That was the simple summation by Nickelson Wooster, senior vice president of product development and design of J.C. Penney Co. Inc., who believes that if merchandise is irresistible to shoppers, it will sell.

Wooster joined the struggling retailer last year as part of its massive transformation campaign and has been working to update the company’s significant private brand portfolio. His appointment at Penney’s came as a surprise to many, since Wooster cut his teeth at high-end retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York. But he characterized his position at Penney’s as “the most interesting and creative job I’ve ever had.”

Dressed “head to ankle” in JCP brand product — a seersucker suit, patterned shirt and tie, all of which could be purchased for $140 — Wooster said it proved that “not everything has to be expensive” to be fashionable.

He said his first memory of visiting a store was Geo. Innis Co., in Wichita, Kan. His grandfather took him there when he was five years old, and “it was the first escalator I’d ever seen.” While he had no conception at that point of either retail or fashion, “I just knew that that was the place for me.”

Growing up, he said, the world shopped at either Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward or J.C. Penney. “That was our J. Crew, Gap, Banana Republic and Zara. And for me, J.C. Penney was the best of the lot.”

So when he got the call to help chief executive officer Ron Johnson in his effort to reinvent Penney’s to “become America’s favorite store,” Wooster jumped on board. “The way we’re going to do that is to make customers look better, live better. It doesn’t matter where you live or what you do, everybody wants that. And that’s what my job is.”

Johnson’s vision is to create a series of shops, both national and private brands, create streets and a retail square where people can share experiences within the store.

The first phase started last August, Wooster said, when several shops made their debut. These included Levi’s, the newly launched JCP brand, Arizona, Liz Claiborne and “really beautiful Izod shops that allow us to show a total collection.”

Earlier this month, the company launched Joe Fresh, which has performed “really, really well” since hitting the floors and in fact became the best-selling brand in women’s overnight, he said.

The company also has high hopes for Dockers, which will open later this year, as well as a planned khaki bar, which Wooster said will be “a place for guys to come to find the right fit for a great staple in men’s wardrobes.”

Although the apparel shops are opening in spurts, on May 3, the company’s entire new home department will open at the same time. This will include a Jonathan Adler shop for furniture, textiles and decorative accessories. There will be Michael Graves shops for gifts and electrics, cooking utensils and “lots of surprises,” along with Design by Conran, which will offer “a whole different taste in furniture,” and Pantone, whose array of colors will liven up the company’s offering of bedding, sheets, towels and bathroom accessories.

Although the price tags on the products may be markedly different, Wooster said that his earlier jobs at upscale retailers are serving him well at Penney’s.

He gave a shout-out to Peter Rizzo, the top men’s merchant at Barneys, who worked with him to produce the store’s private label men’s wear at the start of his career. That merchandise was made in the same factories as Giorgio Armani and other luxury labels but sold at a fraction of the cost. “What he said that always stuck with me was that the trick is to make something for $400 that looks $1,000. And that’s my mandate here. J.C. Penney has always been about unmatched value. We have amazing prices because of our scale. But what we’re doing today is also showing irresistible style.”

He said when he started at the company, he “literally could not find a blue shirt.” Instead, the assortment included a lot of “Skittles colors.” So the company created Stafford Prep, an offshoot of its classic men’s tailored clothing and furnishings private brand that “didn’t have a sportswear component.” The result is an assortment of “really great basics in beautiful colors.”

 

Other products that have been added to the mix include anoraks, camouflage prints and white jeans, all trends of the season.

Wooster told a story about Penney’s jeans, a lot of which sell for around $20. He asked if there was a selvage denim option, and the merchants said yes, but they were too expensive, because they would have to retail for $35. Wooster insisted they be added to the mix. “While this isn’t the biggest seller at retail, I applaud the merchants for making it happen.”

In terms of suits, when he arrived they were all polyester or polyester blends, and the fits were not contemporary. Since that time the fit and fabrications have been updated. Neckwear is now in “better taste,” and dress shirts sport popular patterns such as gingham.

He referred to it as “free-tail,” noting, “Having the right color or fit doesn’t cost more.”

Many of these changes will be evident in the company’s seven proprietary brands for holiday, brands that span a wide variety of tastes. There’s Claiborne, which is “like Hugo Boss” at a price, and the classic brand Stafford, which will now be offering 100 percent camel hair or authentic Harris tweed blazers, black watch dinner jackets and fabric ties. St. John’s Bay, which made polo shirts “that would be large on a refrigerator,” has also been updated. “We made it cool,” he said, with deeper, richer colors that play off the brand’s heritage in outdoors. William Rast, a brand for the contemporary customer, offers drop-crotch pants and jeans and other fashion-forward looks.

Arizona, a 25-year-old Penney’s brand, now has “cleaned-up graphics,” while the JCP brand offers “great basics” and “modern haberdashery.” The newest addition is Xersion, an active sports brand that is a “nice, clean, easy thing for a guy to understand.”

Another example of Penney’s thinking outside the box will be the introduction of The Tourist by Burkman Brothers for back-to-school, a line that is targeted to the college guy.

Wooster summed it up this way: “We do a really good job from 0 to 16 and then pick them back up at menopause,” he said. “But we have a lot of wide-open opportunity, and this is one of those brands that what will help us get there.”