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Q&A: JCP Undergoes Private Brand Refresh

Michelle Wlazlo, EVP, CMO, talks JCPenney's more than a dozen new owned brand launches.
Dan Ochwat
Executive Editor
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Michelle Wlazlo, EVP, chief merchandising officer, JCPenney, joined the retailer just two years ago, bringing more than 30 years of experience from retailers such as Target and GAP, and in her short time is facing a transformational shift in the company’s owned brands program.

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Michelle Wlazlo

The retailer, rebuilding after its bankruptcy and restructuring, has embarked on bringing 13 refreshed or new store brands to the chain. Highlights include the Thereabouts children’s apparel line, the “most inclusive brand” its ever launched with materials accounting for kids with sensory needs, gender-neutral pieces and inclusive sizes. There’s also Ryegrass, a luxurious women’s line, the Xersion athletic line, Loom + Forge and Linden Street in home goods, Stylus in athleisure and more.

Wlazlo is making a mark, leveraging the retailer’s history in private brands. She spoke about it here:

Store Brands: First, tell me a bit about yourself; how long have you been with JCPenney? 
Michelle Wlazlo: I joined JCPenney in March 2019 to lead the company’s merchandise strategy and operations including merchandising, planning and allocation, pricing, product design and development, and sourcing.

SB: Tell me about the new owned brand launches, what has been the strategy?
MW:One of the reasons I joined JCPenney was because of its expertise and history in building private brands. For the past two years, we have taken a very thoughtful approach to our private brand portfolio — we’ve clarified and defined the positioning of each brand, honed each distinctive identity, and filled in the white space with new brands to bring our customers more choice. This strategic work has resulted in offering exciting new merchandise from brands our customers love with products they might not expect from JCPenney.

SB:How have the brands been performing?
MW:.We started our brand work with our women’s, active, and home categories, and we’re proud to see strong performance. In women’s, for example, we’ve taken the equity we’ve built around some of our iconic brands like Liz Claiborne, St. John’s Bay, and a.n.a and refined them to reestablish ourselves as a destination for women’s apparel. We also introduced two new women’s brands — Stylus and Ryegrass — which offer stylish, fashion-forward options in our all-day and on-point categories to complement some of our legacy brands. Our customer has responded positively to the new merchandise mix, as our women’s apparel division continues to be one of our highest performers in the portfolio.  

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I’m particularly proud of our new kids brand, Thereabouts, that launched earlier this summer. As our most inclusive kids brand yet, we wanted to develop a cool, hyper-inclusive children’s clothing line that also features adaptive apparel and accessories. Our team was passionate about creating a line that serves all kids and celebrates diversity of shapes, sizes, styles, and abilities. We’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response from our customers.

SB: What consumer insights are driving these categories? 
MW: Our customers inspire everything we do. As we’re developing brands, we involve consumer insights in all aspects of brand development — from initial research to brand strategy to product testing. By staying connected to their needs and how they shop, we can continue to deliver brands and products that serve a specific purpose for our customer.

SB: How do these launches compare with how the retailer usually launches owned brands?
: Each and every new private brand we launch is part of a strategic and thoughtful approach to round out the offerings within our portfolio for customers. This year alone you will see launches or significant relaunches involving 13 of our private brands across all divisions — six of which are entirely new — to provide a more well-rounded assortment for our customer.

Retail is evolving faster than ever, and we are executing swiftly to ensure JCPenney continues to deliver the highest level of service and quality of products across every division. We’re excited to continue JCPenney’s evolution with compelling product offerings and services.

SB: What’s the process to create these new lines; how are you sourcing developing?
MW: We first look at the brand assortment and determine what business they are serving. From there, we refine and reposition brands as needed to better serve the customer and identify opportunities for growth. In our home portfolio, for example, we had a great foundation of brands, but needed to offer more modern and casual choices in our assortment. From that need, Loom + Forge and Linden Street were developed to service that aesthetic in our portfolio. Our newest private brand, Thereabouts, was similarly created out of customer need. We designed Thereabouts to empower children of all abilities to feel cool, comfortable and confident in anything they wear.

“With 25 significant private brands in our merchandise portfolio, our private brands will continue to be a key driver of business.”

SB: How important are JCPenney’s owned brands to its strategy going forward as it faces a new chapter post-bankruptcy?
Since emerging as a private company last December, our new ownership has been incredibly supportive of our efforts. They believe in our product assortment, brand strategies, and our dedicated customers. With 25 significant private brands in our merchandise portfolio, our private brands will continue to be a key driver of business.

SB: Can you give us a sneak peek at anything new for 2021?
: I am equally excited about JCPenney Beauty, our new, inclusive in-store and online beauty experience that was announced recently and will debut later this fall. Similar to our overall customer-centric business strategy with private brands, we’ve built the next generation of beauty at JCPenney with our customers in mind.

Building upon a legacy of serving millions of JCPenney Salon and beauty customers for more than five decades, customers can expect a one-stop-shop of mass, masstige, and prestige products in a bright, welcoming space. The assortment will include everything from makeup, skincare, fragrance, and responsibly sourced, conscious products to hair products and styling tools. We’re partnering with like-minded beauty brands, including Thirteen Lune. Through this partnership, we have the opportunity to highlight diverse beauty brands established by Black and Brown founders and allies. We can’t wait to introduce our customer to a new beauty experience that better serves their needs and celebrates their authentic beauty.