RETAIL Penney's looks to broaden its base

The new chairman says price will be an important focus.
DALLAS -- J.C. Penney Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Mike Ullman told Wall Street investors Thursday that his goals are to improve profitability and make Penney a more "persuasive" player.
The newly appointed top executive at the Plano, Texas-based department store chain was in New York speaking informally with investors and analysts about his first 44 days on the job. Ullman succeeded Allen Questrom, who retired in December.
While he wasn't prepared to reveal specific long-term plans -- that will come at a scheduled session in April -- he answered several questions that provided hints about where Penney may be heading as it completes a turnaround this year.
"Middle America is the largest consumer group, and we have to continue to be sharper when price is so important to them," Ullman said. Penney is well-positioned to continue to deliver competitive prices with its network of suppliers in China and elsewhere and its private-label brands that include Arizona, Worthington and Stafford.
He thinks there will be more opportunities to gain market share as competitors rebuild concepts. Also, he said the merger in the works between Kmart Corp. and Sears Roebuck and Co. could lead to the closure of a significant number of Sears stores, sending more shoppers to Penney.
He assumes "everyone is a competitor, and Penney can't just look at a Kohl's or Mervyns and say, 'that's my competition.'"
If he mentioned one retailer more than another in his 90-minute breakfast meeting, it was Target Corp. He believes Penney can broaden its customer base as Target has done.
"Penney's merchandise is more compelling than most, but it isn't getting the credit yet," he said.
Penney's stock rose 34 cents to close at $41.70.

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