JCPenney Wants To Bring Current Customers Back More Often, Maybe Also Find New Ones

Spot the CEO: Marvin Ellison is second from left, posing with store employees.

Spot the CEO: Marvin Ellison is second from left, posing with store employees.

Marvin Ellison, the CEO of JCPenney, understands something important about the retailer that his predecessor Ron Johnson didn’t: they’re never going to attract affluent customers, and that’s okay. “We can convince ourselves that our core customers are a more affluent demographic, but really, they’re not,” he told Fortune magazine in a profile this week.

He grew up as a JCPenney customer himself, but not a frequent one. His family of nine would make special twice-yearly trips to the department store, which they looked forward to. He probably never imagined that he would be running the place, though: his career in retail grew out of a part-time job as a Target security guard.

Working his way up from the store entrance to corporate gives him a different perspective from most retail CEOs. (Warning: auto-play video at that link) He emphasizes things like listening to front-line employees, organizing stores logically, and of course bringing back sales to get customers in the doors, like the promotion announced today where they will be selling things for a literal penny.

It may be that the department store chain isn’t going to attract throngs of new shoppers, and that isn’t necessarily a problem. One goal of Ellison’s is to focus on the customers who are already inside the store.

One hidden treasure of the chain is its salon, which takes in about 5% of the company’s revenue, and is actually the largest chain salon in the country. Customers can’t switch to getting haircuts online (yet) and the company is working on that business, realizing that salon visitors are regular store visitors who make other purchases too, and could be persuaded to make more.

THE CEO WHO’S REINVENTING J.C. PENNEY [Fortune] (Warning: auto-play video)