As Arizona goes, so goes J.C. Penney.
The department store chain has recast its 29-year-old Arizona private brand with changes in the styling, marketing, in-store displays and product development cycle, in an effort to reverse weak sales trends and ride what’s expected to be a good back-to-school season for retailing overall.
“Frankly, over the years we sat on our laurels with Arizona. It got too basic and lost touch with the teen customers,” James Starke, Penney’s senior vice president and head of merchandising for men’s, children’s, home and jewelry, told WWD.
“The last time we did anything significant was when we launched shops in 2012,” Starke added. Arizona is Penney’s largest volume brand, doing almost $1 billion in revenue. “It spans from kids to teenage boys and girls. It’s grounded in denim, but there are also fashion accessories, handbags, footwear, outerwear, sportswear. It’s a huge brand. It was time for a comprehensive head-to-toe relook at the brand. Internally, we call it a ‘remix,’” he said.
Penney’s has tapped twin sisters and teen influencers Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight as Arizona “brand ambassadors” to reach teens and Gen Z customers. They will be appearing at select Penney’s stores beginning in late July; life-size cutouts of the twins and signs showing their favorite pieces from the collection are in Penney’s stores, and on their YouTube channel, the twins will show off two custom-designed backpacks with Arizona and Sephora products.
“We’re just average girls, like all of our followers, so partnering with J.C. Penney on Arizona, a brand that has something for everyone, was such an authentic fit,” the twins said. As brand ambassadors, the twins have made a bigger commitment to Penney’s, after collaborating with the department store in the past to promote Arizona’s charitable contributions and participating in Penney’s “Jacques Penne” holiday pop-up shop with private and exclusive brands in SoHo in Manhattan last year.
Among the changes to Arizona, the product development cycle time has been reduced to 26 weeks for the bulk of the merchandise, or about 10 weeks less than the standard. The Arizona in-store shops have been reset to call out trends, such as color blocking and distressed jeans, and highlight outfits with photos of models in a variety of shapes and sizes. Also, Arizona shops were re-merchandised for shopping across categories so it’s easier for teens to pull outfits together, with tops, jeans, shoes, handbags, accessories and fashion jewelry in one location. Items getting a bigger play include flex jeans for four-way stretch, high-waist jeans, relaxed V-neck T-shirts, and clean denim skirts. Screen print T-shirts and sweatshirts have been curtailed and dress lengths on several styles are shorter. A new Arizona logo was unveiled earlier this year and separate Arizona Instagram and YouTube channels were started to strengthen ties to teens.
“One in three J.C. Penney customers buy Arizona, making it our largest private brand,” said Jodie Johnson, senior vice president and head of merchandising for women’s, beauty and family footwear. “We’re really emphasizing the teen shopper in this brand refresh because we know that once the teen embraces Arizona, her younger siblings — and mom — will follow.”
Changes were based on research with teen focus groups, 13 since last fall. Participants were asked such questions as where they find inspiration for style, how often they shop, and what changes would they like to see in Penney’s juniors and young men’s areas.
“We started down this process a year ago,” Starke said, with Penney’s gathering insights on silhouettes, fabrics, details and Penney’s shopping experience. The Arizona team includes 35 designers, textile designers and technical designers for women’s, men’s and kids categories. Back-to-school sets land in all stores on Friday, and the marketing ramps up later this month through August.
Penney’s hopes that a more enticing Arizona will have a much-needed spillover effect throughout the store. In the first quarter of this year, Penney’s experienced a sales decline of 4.3 percent to $2.58 billion and a comp sales gain of just 0.2 percent, while competitors such as Macy’s and Kohl’s are experiencing sales growth and signs of better rebounds. Penney’s volume has been mired in the $12 billion range and the outlook is complicated by the company operating without a chief executive officer since the departure of Marvin Ellison in May.
However, the Arizona overhaul isn’t Penney’s only maneuver for back-to-school. Fanatics in-store shops selling licensed sports merchandise are being rolled out, with 650 in place by August. In addition, Penney’s has been pumping up national brands, particularly Levi’s, Nike and Adidas, as well as Arizona’s special sizes including husky boy and girls plus sizes.
The back-to-school season, noted Starke, “really does set the tone for the third quarter and back half of the year.”
“The most important thing we did was start a conversation with teen customers,” said Val Harris, Penney’s senior vice president of product development and design. “If we win with Arizona, J.C. Penney wins.”
Learnings from Penney’s teen focus groups:
* Teens want to fit in with peers but stand out at the same time.
* Teens want simple designs, not overdone.
* Quality, value, better fabrications and more color choices are important.
* With jeans, teens are loyal to fit, not brands.
* Male teens want to shop for 20 minutes or less.