COLUMBIA — Liz Sweney joined J.C. Penney in 2000 and has been with the 105-year-old corporation during what she calls its “turnaround time.”
Sweney, the executive vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s apparel for the department store, gave two lectures on the MU campus Tuesday as part of the Textile and Apparel Management’s “TAM Executive in Residence.”
The J.C. Penney executive spoke to a packed room at the Reynolds Alumni Center on two different topics, ”How to create private and exclusive brands” and “Things you always wanted to know about the corporate world.”
Since joining J.C. Penney, Sweney has helped launch several exclusive brands within the department store including Liz & Co., Nicole by Nicole Miller and the upcoming Ralph Lauren brand American Living, which debuts in Spring 2008. She also took part in making J.C. Penney the first department store to have an in-house Sephora. Sweney discussed brand implementation within the retail industry and what strides J.C. Penney has taken to revitalize itself within the past seven years. The company’s turnaround, said Sweney, has centered on extensive consumer research in order to target customer lifestyles rather than specific demographic groups.
Ann Ternak, a senior at MU and a textile and apparel management major, was an intern for J.C. Penney this past summer in St. Louis as manager of the children’s department.
“Before I worked there, I didn’t think of it as a place I would shop ever, which is why I was hesitant to work there,” she said. But now Ternak sees stylish clothing when she shops in the store and owns Penney’s merchandise that she wears everyday.
Sweney cited the Internet as playing a crucial role in reaching varied lifestyle groups during the “turnaround time.” For a back-to-school special, the company filmed “webisodes” where high school seniors had their style “flipped” using Penney’s merchandise.
The Internet is used as an interactive tool to excite junior and teen consumers, Sweney said.
Before prolific use of the Internet, reports from runway shows would often take four to six weeks to come out; now the results of shows are available online the next day and businesses can more immediately research designers and decide what fits their company.
Sweney talked to students about the implementation of brands into department stores and commented on the changing business model of an industry that’s seeing increasing specialization of jobs.
Kitty Dickerson, chair of MU’s Textile and Apparel Management department, was excited about the possibilities opened by Sweney’s visit to MU.
“I think she’s very inspiring,” Dickerson said. “She created interest in a lot of our students,” not only for careers within J.C. Penney but retailing careers in general. The TAM department tries to host two or three speakers each semester to expand the horizons of students on the kinds of jobs available in retail. Earlier this semester, Beth Schommer, a Wal-Mart executive, spoke to students about the retailer’s attempts to become more green.
MU senior Stephanie Brinson appreciated the inside look at a major corporation like J.C. Penney but is sticking to her local roots.
“I would sacrifice pay for a job at a local business,” Brinson said.
Although she reads industry publications like Women’s Wear Daily and Textiles, Brinson said the expansion of J.C. Penney hasn’t been high profile in her reading. She said she’s concerned with retailers’ use of sweatshops and would have been interested to know more about Penney’s specific standards regarding the practice.
Calling herself “the original hippie,” Sweney did touch on the “green” measures that Penney’s is taking. The company is finding ways to ship goods without wasting plastic, she said, as well as recycling plastic bottles, which can be made into polyester.
There are more than 1,000 J.C. Penney stores in the United States and Puerto Rico and Sweney said the company expects to open 250 more stores within the next five years.
According to Fortune magazine, J.C. Penney posted revenue of $19 billion in 2005. Wal-Mart, by comparison, had revenues of $315.7 billion.