A look at JCPenney’s $1 billion reinvestment project

Retail Gets Real episode 323: EVP and Chief Merchandising Officer Michelle Wlazlo talks about exclusive partnerships, expanded merchandise offerings and the holidays
Sheryll Poe
NRF Contributor

JCPenney is undergoing a major refresh while building upon its founding purpose of celebrating and serving American families.

“For 122 years — I think [from founder] James Cash Penney and then all of those who have followed — it’s always been about including America’s diverse working families,” JCPenney’s Executive Vice President and Chief Merchandising Officer Michelle Wlazlo says on this episode of Retail Gets Real.

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J.C. Penney’s Executive Vice President and Chief Merchandising Officer Michelle Wlazlo
JCPenney’s Executive Vice President and Chief Merchandising Officer Michelle Wlazlo

Making fashion truly accessible to all sizes and abilities is a core tenet of the department store, Wlazlo says. It’s also part of the retailer’s new “Make It Count” campaign, which focuses on four core areas: making fashion accessible, offering a compelling loyalty program, supporting varied local and cultural communities, and reinforcing a commitment to positive change.

“It’s why we’ve been a leader. We’ve led in plus, big and tall. We’ve led in petite. We’ve always had children’s plus and husky and slim. We’ve added adaptive several years ago, and so I look at what we’re doing as … building upon a strength,” she says. “Almost 100% of every single private brand we offer, we offer in all sizes.”

Making fashion accessible includes introducing fashionable adaptive wear to the department store, something she’s also championed through involvement with Runway of Dreams. “Whoever said that you can’t be fashionable, and feel fashionable and feel confident and feel proud, regardless of [a] disability? We’ve built our assortments there too,” Wlazlo says.

The “Make It Count” strategy and branding is just one part of JCPenney’s historic $1 billion reinvestment initiative, which also includes in-store and technology updates, enhancing digital capabilities and improving merchandising operations.

Holiday shopping

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“It’s touching everything, but then at the same time keeping the foundation of what we’re all about,” says Wlazlo, who joined JCPenney in 2019. “We’re covering a lot of things, but at the same time, we’ve done a lot. We’ve already actually refreshed more than 100 stores.”

The billion-dollar reinvestment initiative also includes further expanding the retailer’s already strong brand portfolio. Since Wlazlo came on board, JCPenney has relaunched over 25 of its private brands and launched 10 new brands, which now make up 55% of its sales. “When I arrived … the brands were powerful already” Wlazlo says. “I didn’t have to do anything besides make them better, and get some refinement and clarity.”

The retailer has also debuted several exclusive fashion collaborations and partnerships over the last year, including a partnership with Prabal Gurung, collections with celebrity stylist Jason Bolden and an ‘Abbott Elementary’ collaboration.

Listen to the full episode to learn more about Wlazlo’s retail career journey, what it’s like to work for a legendary brand that is undergoing transformation, and how JCPenney positions itself as an end-to-end solution for holiday shopping.

Episode transcript, edited for clarity.

Bill Thorne: Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we hear from retail’s most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone, everywhere, every day. I’m Bill Thorne from the National Retail Federation and on today’s episode, we’re talking to Michelle Wlazlo. She’s JCPenney’s executive vice president and chief merchant. 

We’re going to talk to Michelle about what it’s like to work for a legendary brand undergoing a major transformation, the department store’s historic $1 billion reinvestment project, and what’s ahead for the holiday season at JCPenney.

Michelle Wlazlo, welcome to Retail Gets Real.

Michelle Wlazlo: Thank you so much, Bill, lovely to be here.

Thorne: We had a short conversation before we started recording and you have an extraordinary background, and an extraordinary background in retail. It’s not just doing a lot of different things. You’ve really been at just about every level of retail in a lot of different categories and segments. Tell us, how did you get where you are today?

Wlazlo: Into retail. Well, it’s funny. I’m one of these probably unicorn people who knew I wanted to do, to be in retail back from high school, when you know what you want to do … .Well, by the way, I actually want to be a vet. That’s what I really wanted to do and then I shadowed a vet and passed out and threw up. So, blood and things like that were out of the picture. And so, you know …

Thorne: Glad you got that out of the way early.

Wlazlo: Get that out of there early. And to this day, I don’t watch gory movies or gory anything, so that was not going to be my career. 

But it was interesting in high school, I was really always interested — I mean, everyone says this — shopping and all that kind of stuff, and people can say that, but I really had an intrigue and interest in kind of the art of retail. 

And when I was in high school, my stepmother had a clothing store in Fort Collins, Colorado. After school, on Sundays, but every single Saturday, I’d go to her store to help out. This is one store. But I’d go there every Saturday morning — and didn’t even know it was called then, which is really funny. Here I am in high school. I was like, junior in high school. I didn’t know it was called then — but I think I was doing merchandising. And I would go to her store every Saturday and I’d re-merchandise the entire store.

She didn’t get lots of new shipments all the time. I mean, every once in a while, but just because mornings were quiet, I’d go there — and it was a two-level, small store, but two levels — and I would re-merchandise the tables and the mannequins and move things around and do new outfits and just play a bit and kind of re-merchandise the store. And every Saturday people would come and go, ‘We always come on this day because you get all the new product this day,’ and it was just this like …

Of course, we never said anything, and so people were just convinced, and it was this really interesting thing of — I wasn’t trained to do that, but I had a gut instinct about what merchandising can look like. Obviously now, merchandising and visual merchandising are two distinct things, but I think they’re inherently connected.

I think I got the bug back then. My stepmother had said she had gone to a fashion school in Minneapolis, and I said, that’s what I’m going to do. I started my career fairly young, and so I was really focused on learning all aspects of retail — from buying to … I wasn’t a great designer, but the business side of it always fascinated me. That’s how I kind of got interested [and] into it. 

But I think what’s the most interesting part of how I started out my career is: I was very young, and I … actually, while I was going through school, I was working at a company called Harold in Minneapolis. This is not Harold’s. There’s Harold’s department stores and then there was Harold, and Harold in Minneapolis was a couture store [with] wealthy Minneapolis customers. This was Pauline Trigère, Bottega Veneta, before those things were even things in the 1980s. 

I was a part-time sales associate, worked myself up to department manager while I was in school, and a buying job came open, and I walked into the president’s office for our one store, and said, ‘Give me the buying job,’ and he looked at me like, you are crazy. And I said, ‘What do you have to lose?’ 

I look back at that as probably those two experiences — my stepmom’s store and then how I started my career — as the number one reason that I have had success. In that moment, I was driving a beat-up yellow Volkswagen Bug, wearing vintage clothes because I couldn’t afford anything else, living paycheck to paycheck. This is your starving young twenties, and I was buying handbags, jewelry, sorting lines, buying and selling to the wealthiest individuals in Minnesota and the Midwest.

At that moment, I knew what it was like to understand the customer and not have personal preferences when you buy things. Because there’s not one thing I was doing for those customers or buying for them that I related to. But I knew how to pick out things for them, and I knew what they’d relate to. It was those two experiences — to see the impact you can have on people’s lives, and understanding customers’ behaviors and preferences — that just got me hooked. You know, two minor experiences that got me hooked on that aspect.

Thorne: Well, and that’s how it often happens. We talk about it all the time: You’ve got to be passionate about retail to be successful in retail. That’s the bottom line. And you’ve got to be willing to accept change because things are constantly changing, and you have to change with it. 

I think your story is an extraordinary story because all of the different things that you did that basically lent themselves to landing where you are today, which I don’t think is going to be the last — in terms of leadership, as you continue to grow in your career — but it’s fascinating. 

Wlazlo: Well, it’s funny because I started out my career and I was always in the field, so even at Harold, I was in the store and doing buying. And then I went to Saks Fifth Avenue in Minneapolis, and I was in the store, but I was doing buying. Then I went to Bebe, and I was district manager, and so I was only in the stores.

And I remember when Bebe asked me to go from D.C. — that’s where I was living at the time — and I’d left Minneapolis to come to San Francisco, and they said, ‘Because you’re a buyer,’ and I said, ‘I’ve never, I don’t buy. I’m not a buyer. I’m a fields person. I’m a stores girl.’ I was passionate and genuinely believed – and I still was, right? — and I was like, ‘I’m not going to be a corporate person. I’m a stores person.’ But they’re like, ‘But you did all this buying.’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no, I did that, but I was a stores person during it.’ And so, I had to convince myself that, ‘Oh yeah, I was a buyer.’ I wasn’t just…

But it was a hard pivot to go from being in the stores, buying for the customer to actually being [at] headquarters, and buying for someone. It’s a sense of removal that was unique for me as I expanded my career.

Thorne: Well, talk about expanding your career — you are now in a phenomenal position with a famous and iconic retail brand. But there’s a $1 billion reinvestment project going on at JCPenney. Tell me, what does that transformation look like?

Wlazlo: Yeah. It’s touching everything, but then at the same time, keeping the foundation of what we’re all about. So, you’ve heard us say, we’re touching digital capabilities, in-store technology updates, the store environment, merchandising supply chain, so we’re covering a lot of things.

But at the same time, we’ve done a lot and so we’re investing a lot, but we’ve done a lot. We’ve already actually refreshed more than 100 stores. So often when I’m in stores with amazing key partners of ours in the vendor community or others, they’ll go, ‘Oh my gosh. This is such a huge, refreshed store,’ so many of our stores are actually really good. We just needed a refresh, some paint, lighting, all that type of stuff, so a lot that’s been happening. 

Then the other thing that helped us, this billion dollars, move us, advance us further is: We had already done so much of the brand portfolio work. That got started when I joined in 2019, and so you’re not starting from scratch, using that money to reimagine every brand, every sourcing capability, every, every, everything. We really could take the brand work that already been done, and enhance, and build these, this investment on top of it through experiences, technology, digital capabilities and supply chains. 

So, it’s going for some things that are really important to us that I think are going to help the customer. But I can tell you for certain that we didn’t have to start from scratch and that makes it really, really nice.

Thorne: Yeah. So, you have some initiatives that you’ve undertaken, adaptive fashion and inclusive sizing. 

Wlazlo: One of our brand pillars — we have four brand pillars — and one of them is making fashion truly accessible. Just like when I came here, and when I arrived, it’s like, ‘Oh, all these brands.’ Like the brands were powerful already. I didn’t have to do anything besides make them better and get some refinement and clarity. And that’s the same thing with this, with making fashion truly accessible. JCPenney, when I was looking at the opportunity back in 2019, it’s just been validated being here, and then what we’re doing going forward — 

For 122 years — I think James Cash Penny and then all of those who have followed — it’s always been about including America’s diverse, working American families. Whether we say that our purpose is to celebrate and serve America’s diverse, working families, it always has been. We just clarified it. You know, if you’re going to be that for 122 years, it’s why we’ve been a leader, so we’ve led in plus, big and tall. We’ve led in petite. We’ve always had children’s plus and husky and slim. We’ve added adaptive several years ago. And so I look at what we’re doing as something that we’re building upon a strength versus running out and trying to say, ‘Hey, look, we’re now doing things for all people.’ 

I’m really proud and we challenge ourselves all the time, but virtually almost 100% of every single, private brand we offer in all sizes, and some is in stores and others is online. But we do that, and we take it very seriously because I think there’s so much misnomer about size inclusivity, and it’s just having people feel really powerful, and beautiful, and fashionable — whether their age, whether their shape, whether their size. 

I’m really proud of that work. It’s not something … I mean, it’s something we take seriously. But I’m proud that we don’t have to … it’s not this thing we have to start, because I see so many retailers starting it, and I’m like, ‘How long has the world been diverse? It’s always been diverse.’

Thorne: Yeah. Well, that brings a level of authenticity to it too. You know, there’s a lot of folks that get out in front, and they say, ‘Oh yeah, this is what we’re doing, and this is a priority, and this is something that we feel very strongly [about.]’ But they’ve never really done it before. They’ve never really focused on it, and that’s been kind of a core mission for you all. So that brings a level of authenticity to it that people really relate to. It’s fantastic.

Wlazlo: Right. Absolutely. I’ve been involved with Runway of Dreams. And again, it’s adults and kids with disabilities. They have a disability. Whoever said that you can’t be fashionable, and feel fashionable, and feel confident and feel proud, regardless of that disability? 

We’ve built our assortments there, too, and it’s just it’s all of it. But the most important thing for me at JCPenney is: It’s why I came here. But we’ve built it [up] since I’ve arrived, and I think the team’s passion around that is really genuine and it’s because it’s who our customers are. They’re the fabric of America, and boy, do we love America’s all different colors, shapes, sizes. It’s pretty amazing.

Thorne: Looking at your team… you, all retailers, you’re always looking ahead. What are you focused on for the coming year?

Wlazlo: We’re continuing — besides the investment, the $1 billion investment — from my team, we just are expanding our work. So, gosh, since 2019, we relaunched over 25 of our private brands and launched 10 new brands, and so, I would say, there’s always going to be work. But by and large, I feel really confident that we will let the customer keep telling us if they’re not, but I feel confident in our portfolio of brands, our portfolio of end uses. I mean, there’s really not one occasion in our diverse, working American families lives that we can’t address and serve for them.

As we look ahead, I think we are continuing to keep pushing on that inclusivity, and I would say beyond just the apparel and everything — really proud of what we’ve done. We just finished launching JCPenney Beauty in May, and so now we have 608 stores of JCPenney Beauty, and that again, it’s who we are. You know, we have a significant portion of BIPOC-founded brands and giving people access to having shelf space in over 600 stores, which is amazing. So, we’ll build on that inclusivity piece. 

I think we’ll continue to look at our brand portfolio, but our private brands now are about 55% of our sales. But we love — and I mean love — our national brand partners. Whether it’s Levi’s, Adidas, you name them. Wrangler, Lee, we have amazing partners, but it’s really fantastic to see the growth we’re getting in our private brands. So often people will say, ‘Oh, no, that’s a national brand,’ and it’s one of our private brands: Liz Claiborne, J. Ferrar, Stafford, Worthington. You hear people talk about that, so I think it’s refining those brands. 

And then probably the thing that you’ve seen us do the most this last year that will continue is partnerships. We started out the year with Prabal Gurung, which was our first big fashion partnership. And then we’ve had Jason Bolden, who just hit in September and another collection in October. We just did, internally — it was the Abbott Elementary collaboration there, and we’re really building on the collaboration space. But I would say the same thing with inclusion, is here.

Just being with Jason recently — there are so many people who passionately want to partner with JCPenney because of the impact we had on their lives and the impact we had on them. So, Jason — and this is where, when you see us doing partnerships just like with everything else, it would be really easy to say, ‘Oh, I have a need to do partnerships.’ My background from previous businesses, I’ve done a lot of partnerships, but when we thought about partnerships from JCPenney, there’s nothing more powerful than people who love you partnering with you.

So, Jason, when we met with … he got emotional, and we have another partnership coming in spring with someone who I can’t share yet, who also got emotional. Like, deeply emotional of the impact that JCPenney had on their lives when they were younger and growing up, and access to fashion, and what we did to just show that you could … I mean, we are a fashion leader, actually, for so many customers. And so that’s something I’m really excited about.

You’re going to see more and more and more partnerships coming up, and those serve multiple, purposes. One is: It’s always a little buzz to remind people of the credibility we have in fashion. And then I think it also is the storytelling that is all around the impact we’ve had on people’s lives, and so you’re going to see more, more partnerships coming up.

Thorne: So, you have another partnership coming up very, very quickly, and always seem to just roll right into it, and that’s a partnership with Santa Claus. What is the holiday season at JCPenney’s looking like?

Wlazlo: Yeah. I know, isn’t it crazy? I think we just like, didn’t we just finish this …

Thorne: I know. I know. 

Wlazlo: Yes, I know, and I will say in my neighborhood, half the people already have Christmas lights up because …

Thorne: I know. I know. It’s unbelievable.

Wlazlo: It’s interesting. At JCPenney, we actually — whether people have been with us, shopped with us recently, not a lot, or don’t know us as well, or haven’t been to us for a while — this is when we shine. This is when really, we have a re-engagement with so many people. For holiday this year… listen, we know it’s trying out there right now. But we’re certain —and we’ve again, we’ve done surveys, and we talked to lots of customers — regardless of where someone’s at, these diverse working American families, no matter how much times can be tough, there is nothing more important than celebrating with their families.

And so, we’re really two-, three-fold in a holiday. First, we actually have spent a lot of time ensuring that our families can get amazing product to host and entertain. So often retailers go straight to, ‘Come buy gifts at us. Come buy all the presents.’ And what we’ve heard from our customers is, ‘The most meaningful thing I’m doing this year is to have my family over. Or the most meaningful thing I’m doing is to have friends over and to celebrate.’

A lot of our strategy is — we have Martha Stewart, in our assortment, but we just launched Jenny Martinez’s Mesa Mia, which is a cookware line. She’s just a beloved influencer to start, but we focused there first because we heard over and over again, ‘I want to know where I can go and how I can entertain the best possible way. Have my house light up with all the, the reads.’ So, our strategy is to actually celebrate and help out the person who’s actually celebrating, and so I think that’s really great. 
And then, oh, by the way, we’ll have lots of gifts. Of course, we’re going to have lots of gifts. We really pulled them together. We have a little over 1,000 gifts that are $15 and under. Pulled them together to make it really easy, so that, you know, there’s nothing better than taking the checklist and saying, ‘I can buy these things for everyone on the list.’ So bundling things where it’s everything’s pre-packaged, pre-done, I think, is really easy. 

And then on top of that, I always say (I don’t know if I can say this on a podcast, but I will), people aren’t naked in Q4. I mean, they still wear clothing, right? 

Thorne: You can say that. And we’ll still maintain our G-rating. 

Wlazlo: I know, I think that we forget sometimes, and I’m really proud of what we stand for at JCPenney, that it’s about how do we help you prepare for the holidays and celebrate? How do we give you the best options for gifts, and how do you feel the best about yourself? 

We’ve been a leader in dressy for as long as JCPenney has been around. But I think just what we’re doing to celebrate and show ways to mix dressy things with denim, and all sorts of ways that people can celebrate it. So, I would say we are really an end-to-end solution for holidays. 

We are … nearly everything that we’re advertising for our two Black Friday periods — early November, we’re doing a window, and then again during the traditional Black Friday timing — we’re holding to the prices we’ve previously held in years prior, and I think that’s really important for where our families are this year, and so we’re really proud of that. 

I mean, we hold our own sourcing, and so we can manage those things, and it was really important. I just think this year, we are about gifts and about the family experience, and the confidence we can give each other.

Thorne: I think our research has shown the exact same, people are ready to celebrate. People want to be with friends and family, and that is really critically important. And the other thing that we found this year, I believe — I’m not going to give the numbers because the numbers people will yell at me — is that they’re actually spending a little less on themselves and more for their family and friends. 

Wlazlo: It’s just that there’s nothing better than that joy of giving someone the perfect gift, too. But we definitely hear it and see it. It’s not only gift-giving, but just the time together and just the joy. Anyone who has small kids or grandkids or nieces and nephews, that joy of seeing that is really spectacular. And we do think, especially with … what you’re seeing from our campaign and what we’re doing ahead, it just, it feels really authentic.

Thorne: What excites you most about the future of the retail industry more broadly?

Wlazlo: I would love to come up with some crazy technology guru thing to say, but I think … Actually, there’s two things that excite me most. I think there is … I’m going to go really just old school and then talk about what things are happening. 

I think there’s a kind of resurgence and appreciation of what is happening retail with just — I have three kids and two of my daughters in their young twenties — and there is this whole feeling of the physicality of shopping that’s coming back. 
I’m not saying that — and I’ll talk next about what I love that’s on the whole flip side of that — but I think we are moving to a future again that is about the joy of sharing and looking and seeing. And I just watch my daughters who I think is … that’s the generation. And the joy they’re having a rediscovering experience. And experience is not just travel, but experience is the experience of shopping, and all that stuff. I think that’s really cool. It’s a complete throwback, but it’s really cool. 

But I think the thing that excites me, and I just think it’s going to get bigger and bigger — so it doesn’t matter what. Listen, I grew up, I was born in the late 1960s, so I grew up in the late 1970s, right, and then early 1980s in my prime years of high school, and then, after that, and, you had one way to shop. And I just look at the future retail about … just all the ways that you can be inspired and then satisfy yourself at the same time. And the access that it gives brands that are not known to become known instantaneously. 

So, I think that the different ways of shopping, wherever you are, and to be able to have that immediate gratification or that inspiration turned to satisfaction right away. But more importantly, just again: It’s, everything’s equal … going forward. And I watch so many brands and — the same thing I talked about in some of our beauty founder brands — these amazing stories and these amazing brands and many amazing products that have the same opportunity now potentially, right, and I think that’s really, really, really cool that that is happening. I think that’s just exciting that’s happening in retail. It’s the best startup thing happening.

Thorne: It’s ever changing. All right. So, you’ve had an extraordinary career in retail. Give me an idea of the best piece of career advice that you could give for those just starting out in retail as a career?

Wlazlo: I’m going to say it in two words: Be curious. I was not curious enough when I was younger, and I think curiosity is the most powerful thing. Be curious about your competitors. I always say to my team, don’t go in and find everything that’s wrong with them. Go in and be curious enough to know where they’re beating you.

Being curious about the customer, being curious about what’s next, and curious about macro and micro things. I just think curiosity is such a powerful thing because it actually calms you from actually saying, ‘But no, wait. I’m sure I was right.’ I wish I could have come back some intensity, ‘But I am wrong. That sucked. I’m stupid. Let me move on. Right?’

I can do it really easily now, but I think that level of curiosity and thinking about what that means throughout your career is really a really powerful thing.

Thorne: Michelle Wlazlo, it has been a true pleasure talking with you today. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Wlazlo: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Thorne: I know you’re busy, so thank you very, very much. And thank you all for listening to another episode of Retail Gets Real. You can find more information about this episode at retailgetsreal.com. I’m Bill Thorne. This is Retail Gets Real. Thanks again for listening. Until next time.

 

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The retail industry impacts everyone, everywhere, every day.

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