Is Penney breaking its 'no coupon' promise?


NEW YORK -- Is J.C. Penney breaking its promise to offer no more coupons? That depends on who you ask.

In its latest email to customers, the department store chain's CEO Ron Johnson not only offered an update on the recent changes at the chain, but also dangled an incentive to come back: $10 off customers' next purchase.

Penney's spokeswoman Kate Coultas said it's not a coupon, but rather a gift for its loyal customers. "This invitation is in no way a reflection of a departure from our Fair and Square everyday low prices," she wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

At least one analyst disagreed.

"It's a coupon rebranded," said Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst at NBG Productions. "This tells me that the traffic problem continues."

The $10 offer comes as the Plano, Tex.-based department store grapples with two consecutive quarters of losses and severe sales drops since Johnson eliminated hundreds of sales events and dumped coupons entirely on Feb. 1. That's because shoppers, accustomed to big sales, have fled to other stores. And while Penney is in the midst of rolling out new specialty shops within its stores, Johnson predicts that business will remain weak throughout the rest of the year.

During a meeting with investors last month in Dallas, Johnson said that sales were "tougher than planned," starting early in September.

"Kids are back to school. We don't have a coupon to bring them in to buy. We don't have sales to get started on fall. We've got to trust....when the time's right, that they'll come back."

Penney has been tweaking its pricing strategy. It initially offered three-tier pricing: every day prices that are 40 percent lower than a year ago, deeper monthlong discounts and periodic clearance sales. However, shoppers were confused by that and in August, the company eliminated the monthlong discounts.

Speaking to a group of fashion industry professionals earlier this month Johnson said, "We are always going to tweak the tactics, but we won't change the vision."

Penney shares rose 8.4 percent, or $2.03, to close at $26.18 on Thursday. The rise was partly fueled by encouraging comments from Levi Strauss & Co. that its new shops at Penney are faring well.

Shares have traded between $19.06 and $43.18 over the past 52 weeks. The stock is down 25 percent since early this year.