JCP enters next phase of turnaround; shares rise

J.C. Penney shares were up more than 3 percent Monday, defying a down day for the markets, after one analyst said the department store has "multiple levers to pull" in working toward its goal of $1.2 billion in EBITDA by 2017.

While upgrading the retailer's shares to "buy" from "hold," Deutsche Bank analyst Paul Trussell listed a handful of opportunities for the company to improve its margins, including the use of new technologies to limit unintended markdowns.

He likewise pointed to several enhancements to its store presentation as potential drivers of sales.

"The company is already proficient in the art of retail under under its seasoned merchandising team with what we think are the right brands and assortment," Trussell wrote. "New CEO Marvin Ellison is now driving the next step of applying the science of retail to bring J.C. Penney up the curve."

Employees assist customers at a J.C. Penney store at the Gateway Shopping Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Following a disastrous—and widely publicized—failure to reinvent the traditional department store, Penney has grown its same-store sales seven of the last eight quarters, including its fourth straight increase in the most recent quarter, according to Retail Metrics.

By bringing back a larger penetration of private label brands, which have long accounted for a huge chunk of the retailer's sales, and returning to its promotional ways, Penney once again has about 87 million active customers.

Now, the goal is to get them to increase their visits, and how much they spend. Among Penney's strategies are ramping up its partnership with specialty beauty shop Sephora, where comparable sales growth continues to outpace the overall company, and adding new fixtures and lighting in major departments including handbags.

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It's also reworking its salon services and has increased the amount of space allotted to women's footwear.

Along with these changes, Trussell listed the potential to get shoppers to buy across different categories, the rollout of same-day buy-online-pick-up-in-store capabilities and a revamped loyalty program as other opportunities.

He added that levers to improve margins, such as finetuning its prices and getting inventory levels in check, could allow the retailer to achieve its income goal while posting only moderate same-store sales growth.

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Trussell assigned a $12 price target to Penney but said he remains cautious on the retailer, given a "challenging competitive environment and tough compares."

The analyst is modeling $1.18 billion in 2017 EBITDA, just shy of the retailer's $1.2 billion goal.

Despite the ground Penney has recovered, Retail Metrics founder Ken Perkins said earlier this month that the biggest question remains when it will finally record a profit—something it hasn't done since fourth quarter 2011.

"Over the last 14 quarters the company has lost a staggering $3.306 billion," Perkins wrote.

J.C. Penney shares were trading near $9.26 Monday afternoon. They have risen almost 43 percent so far this year.