JC Penney sales set to get back-to-school boost

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

The back-to-school season will be the biggest test for CEO Mike Ullman since he returned to J.C. Penney in early April.

While few analysts are betting the struggling department store chain will be one of the major winners for the season this year, many think it may finally start to show signs of life.

The big question is whether or not its fiscal third quarter will be the first time the retailer brings home a positive same-store sales report card since second-quarter 2011.

Children's apparel makes up about 12 percent of total sales for J.C. Penney, and slightly more during the third quarter.

Back-to-school is the first true period with Ullman's stamp. Though the closely watched revamp of J.C. Penney's home department this spring largely launched under his leadership, it was the vision of former CEO Ron Johnson.

(Read More: JC Penney hopes for a home run with new launch)

Kids departments at J.C. Penney on Monday were set with back-to-school merchandise, including the company's exclusive Joe Fresh Kids product. Juniors and Young Men's departments will have the full back-to-school inventory on July 19. The key now is to reach moms and persuade them to give the retailer another shot.

"We have heard from our customers that directionally, it's been hard to shop, which is why we are adding navigational signage throughout the whole store," said Betsy Schumacher, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of kids at J.C. Penney. "We are adding mobile [point-of-sale units] to make it easier to check out."

J.C. Penney associates are getting a makeover, too.

"Our customers have also told us they couldn't identify our associates," Schumacher said. "So starting with back-to-school, they will have a red lanyard around their necks that says JCP."

(Read More: Good grades ahead for back-to-school sales)

Under Johnson, J.C. Penney drastically reduced its vendors and overall inventory, taking available brands from 400 to about 100. For many of its core consumers, the changes went too far. Schumacher is part of the team responsible for reversing those moves and making sure mothers can find what they want, when they want it.

"Customers have told us they haven't been able to find their size. We haven't been in stock," she said. "What we are doing for kids, juniors and young men's is [ensuring that] our inventory levels are significantly above last year."

The retailer's return to sales and coupons appears to have won back some shoppers. Analysts estimate that foot traffic has improved. And the relaunch of the home store may have helped the retailer stem sales losses. Wall Street won't know for sure until the second-quarter earnings are reported in August.

But these steps toward repairing a flawed strategy may not be enough to bring back shoppers who have given up on J.C. Penney.

Even Schumacher acknowledged the importance of loyalty. "Moms are out shopping in mass for Q3, they are out looking for back-to-school looks. They are very loyal to where they can find the right product, the right trend and the right fit," she said.

J.C. Penney hasn't gotten a passing grade on those three tenets in some time, but it has been doing it's homework. Back-to-school will show if Ullman passes the test.

—By CNBC's Courtney Reagan. Follow her on Twitter @CourtReagan.