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J. C. Penney Company, Inc.: Buy the Dip?

By Daniel B. Kline – Apr 29, 2018 at 6:32AM

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The retailer's stock has struggled despite signs that it's doing better.

J.C. Penney (JCPN.Q) has been fighting to avoid becoming a casualty of what has widely been called the retail apocalypse. The chain has closed stores, lost sales, and seen about 90% of its stock value disappear over the past decade.

To make matters worse, shares of the already depressed stock dropped another 30% in March. Things have not meaningfully improved in April. After closing at $3.02 on the final trading day of March, the company's stock price closed at $3.08 on April 25, down from $4.35 at market open on March 1.

That's a big dip for a company that has shown signs of turning its business around. For investors, however -- at least those who believe J.C. Penney will be a retail survivor -- it's an opportunity to buy shares.

A J.C. Penney store

J.C. Penney has shown some signs that its turnaround has worked. Image source: J.C. Penney.

Where does J.C. Penney stand?

While its closest rival, Sears (SHLDQ), has shown no signs of reversing its same-store sales slide, J.C. Penney did exactly that in 2017. The company posted a 0.1% same-store sales gain for the full year, and an encouraging 2.6% increase in that metric in the fourth quarter. The retailer also delivered  Q4 earnings of $0.81 per share, though it lost $0.37 for the full year.

"For 2017, we improved adjusted earnings per share by 175%, reduced our outstanding debt levels by over $600 million and generated over $200 million of free cash flow," said CEO Marvin R. Ellison in the Q4 earnings release. "During the fourth quarter, we delivered our strongest positive sales comps and achieved our largest gross margin improvement for the year."

It's not a fluke

While Sears' turnaround strategy has mostly been about closing stores, J.C. Penney has revamped its business. The company has changed its merchandise lineup, most notably in woman's apparel.

It's also changed its stores in ways that make them destinations. The chain has added toy departments in each of its stores -- a move that may prove more important since the death of Toys R Us -- and has also brought appliance sections into more than half of its stores, revamped its salons, and added more Sephora store-within-a-store locations. In addition, J.C. Penney has also strategically added home services in markets where Sears has abandoned them.

J.C. Penney has a chance

J.C. Penney is not out of the woods yet. The retailer still faces significant market pressure from customers moving their business to digital retailers. It also has significant exposure at struggling Class B malls.

Despite that, the company is moving in the right direction. J.C. Penney should benefit from Sears' seemingly imminent total collapse. It should also pick up customers from the Toys R Us bankruptcy, and perhaps from other chains that are struggling.

This has not been an easy path for J.C. Penney, but Ellison has made smart moves since he became CEO in 2014. He has strategically closed stores while building out the company's omnichannel capacity, a requirement to operate in today's marketplace.

Those moves started to pay off in 2017, and the company is in solid shape for the coming year. J.C. Penney isn't about to return to its former glory, but it should prove in the coming year that it's going to be here for the long-term.

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.

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