J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) confounds me as a business.

On a macro, companywide management level, I love what CEO Marvin Ellison has done. He's making the big moves that position his company for eventual success, and he's shrewdly capitalizing on the slow death of Sears Holdings (NASDAQ:SHLD).

That's not the full story for the brand, though. Management on a companywide level only means so much. On a store-by-store operational basis, my experiences have been largely negative.

It's a sort of duality that leaves me mixed on the chain's prospects. I love the overall plan for the company, but I still dislike shopping in its stores.

A J.C. Penney store

J.C. Penney has a good long-range plan, but poor in-store execution. Image source: J.C. Penney.

Here's what I love

Unlike Sears, which seems to be shedding assets and closing stores with its only real plan being not to run out of money, J.C. Penney has a clear direction. Ellison has focused on giving consumers a reason to visit his stores. That has included adding Sephora shops, improving the chain's in-store salons, and adding appliance sales to more than half its stores.

The retailer also will add toy sections to all its stores and has added home services in some markets. Specifically, J.C. Penney has pursed selling home services in markets where Sears has left.

It's not a quick turnaround strategy and results have been mixed, but it's one that's likely to gain strength as other retailers fail. The only problem I see is that my recent experiences shopping at J.C. Penney have left me less likely to go back.

Here's what I hate

These experiences happened at two different J.C. Penney locations, both in Florida, but each about three hours from the other. In both cases, I intentionally went to the chain hoping to buy something specific. It's also worth noting that two shopping experiences could both be outliers, just bad luck on my part.

In the first situation, I went to a J.C. Penney to buy a black, moisture-wicking polo shirt. In general, I found that while there were a lot of brands to pick from, the overall inventory was poor when it came to sizes. Each brand seemed to have mostly small and medium -- two poor-selling sizes.

I was looking for extra-large and wanted two of the same shirt. When I finally found one I liked, I grabbed two on hangers marked extra large and was pleased that they were on sale at a very good price. When I got home, I learned that I should have looked closer, as I had actually purchased an extra large and one large on a hanger marked "extra large."

My second experience centered on buying a pair of size 11 slides. I had no particular brand in mind but wanted to spend less than $30 to acquire a pair that didn't have an adjustable band.

Again the selection in the shoe department was poor. They had a few brands, but none in the right size. Eventually -- while looking for a salesperson -- I stumbled upon a second, well-picked-over display of slides in the athletic department, not all that near the sneakers. Again, the sizes were mostly very small or very big, but I was able to grab the one pair in the size I wanted.

That wasn't the end of the poor experience. As I was checking out -- about half an hour before the store closed on a Sunday -- there was a long line. That didn't stop the manager from working on closing down registers, while the store was being shut down around those still shopping.

What does this mean?

Ellison needs to extend his attention to store-level operations. Inventory management conserves cash, but there's a fine line between being careful and losing sales because you don't have what people need.

And while I'm pickier than most because I spent multiple years running a retail store, customers shouldn't see closing activities while they shop -- especially if the actions cause people to have to wait longer to check out. It may save a few bucks to get stuff out faster, but a store that's being closed around you is not an inviting place to shop.

These are relatively easy fixes, but they need to be fixed for J.C. Penney to thrive and not merely survive. Stores need inventory, and store managers need to know that either shaving some payroll hours, or just wanting to go home, doesn't justify creating a poor customer experience.


Daniel B. Kline has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.