JC Penney sinks after warning on sales

It's been three years since J.C. Penney held an analyst day, and it's likely the retailer was hoping for a warmer reception from investors than it received Wednesday.

Shares in the retailer fell sharply, and were briefly halted due to volatility, after the company said same-store sales growth this quarter would be less than forecast. (What's the stock doing now? Click here)

Citing a slowdown in September, Chief Financial Officer Ed Record told analysts the company was trending to low-single-digit growth for same-store sales for the current quarter.

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The company had previously projected mid-single-digit same-store sales growth.

The CFO also provided some longer-term financial projections. The retailer sees revenue of $14.5 billion in 2017, a proclaimed "conservative" gross margin forecast of 36.5 percent, and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of $1.2 billion.

Shoppers in JCPenney
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Shoppers in JCPenney

Not long ago, Penney was staring death in the face. While not completely healed, it's no longer in critical condition. After nine-straight quarters of declines, same-store sales have turned positive for the last three quarters.

And while Penney shares were trending lower heading into the analyst meeting, the stock has almost doubled since reaching its all-time low of $5 in February.

During former CEO Ron Johnson's reign, shares plunged more than 50 percent. Johnson left the company in April 2013, and former CEO Mike Ullman returned.

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Ullman began Wednesday's analyst meeting simply, with little fanfare, by reviewing the state of the company and reminding the crowd that he's been back for exactly 18 months.

Both Ullman and his executive team made multiple veiled references to Johnson and his failed transformation vision.

"Our consumers know we like them and that we want them," Ullman said. It was widely discussed that Johnson "fired" the J.C. Penney shopper during his tenure as he looked for younger, hipper consumers.

"There's a fine line between love and hate," was Chief Marketing Officer Deb Berman's opening line. She also emphasized how the chain is working to incorporate empathy and respect in its messaging.

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Ullman and his team laid out key growth initiatives that include a focus on the center core of the store, home store productivity and efforts to make its online and in-store experiences more seamless for the consumer.

In the center core, Penney is redesigning its shoe, watch and sunglasses areas to improve the customer experience and build market share as it sees opportunity to increase market share in those high-margin categories.

Ahead of the meeting there had been some speculation that the retailer would look to close additional stores, and some suggested that weakness in the stock was tied to disappointment that that did not happen.

"Many people make the wrong assumption that [closing stores] is the fastest way to freedom," Ullman said in response to CNBC's question.

As for whether Ullman is eager to head back into retirement and let someone else take the CEO spot, he said, "it would be inappropriate to comment on a board matter. I'm here for as long or short as needed."