Why Is J.C. Penney Popping Up in Times Square?

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J.C. Penney is riding a wave of good fortune. Its most recent quarterly results soared because of strong sales online and in its department stores. It also launched its biggest marketing campaign ever during this year's Academy Awards telecast - with seven commercials, 12-page ad spreads in People, InStyle and Vogue magazines and 10 million catalogs to feature its spring line. Continuing the buzz, the company unveiled a 15,000-square-foot temporary promotional store smack dab in New York's Times Square, which garnered a ton of media attention.

Too bad no one's walking through the three-level showroom, but I'll get to that in a moment. Decked out in its signature red and white colors, the store doesn't look anything like one of Penney's Middle America mall stores. In a city that craves the unusual, that would have stood out more. What's unique about this pop-up store, which is open through March 26, is that it has 22 Internet kiosks placed in front of every mannequin and furniture display. You can't walk out with anything; items must be ordered through the kiosks and shipped.

Penney hopes to use the Internet's flash to drive store traffic as well as to update its dowdy image. Someone has figured out that half of U.S. households haven't shopped at a Penney's store in the past three years. Officials see the Internet as their golden ticket: Penney surpassed $1 billion in online sales last year, rivaling Wal-Mart's $1.17 billion. The company is testing Internet kiosks in select stores featuring styles that are only online. It also invested $1.4 billion to add touch screens to cash registers so sales staff can order online if customers can't find an item in a store.

The problem with the Times Square store is its location. No tourists need to see a Penney store, and no New Yorkers want to be in Times Square unless they have to be there. So the store is sitting empty. I ventured by the other day only to have the store to myself. There were literally more Penney's representatives inside than intrigued consumers. A clerk told me it's been that way all week. People walk in, but they get out as soon as they hear they can't leave with anything.

From a PR standpoint, however, it may be the perfect location. The media focused on the company and this different approach. Still, I'll bet that most New Yorkers don't even know the virtual showroom is in the city, and I'm pretty sure no Manhattanite will trek to the nearest stores in Brooklyn, Queens or Jersey City, NJ, to see what's all inside once it's gone.

Tad Clarke is editor in chief of DM News. His editorial appears Mondays on www.dmnews.com and in our e-mail newsletter. You can subscribe to our e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters

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