Penney's 2Q results show some signs of life

J.C. Penney has returned to more traditional sales

J.C. Penney has returned to more traditional sales online and at stores like this one in Glendale, Calif. (Aug. 16, 2013) (Credit: Bloomberg News)

The worst may be over at J.C. Penney Co.

The beleaguered department store chain yesterday reported its sixth straight quarter of big losses and steep revenue drops as it continued to face challenges related to a botched turnaround plan spearheaded by its ousted CEO Ron Johnson.

But investors sent Penney shares up 6 percent to $14.01 yesterday -- after having pushed the stock down nearly 70 percent in the last 18 months -- in an expression of confidence that returning CEO Mike Ullman has started to stabilize the business.

Since he retook the top job in April after having occupied it from 2004 to 2011, Ullman has been bringing back coupons, frequent sales events and basic merchandise like khakis and jeans that Johnson eliminated in a failed attempt to attract hipper, more affluent shoppers. The latest report offered some encouraging signs that the move is beginning to pay off.

Revenue improved from month to month during the second quarter, and the decline in Penney's online business slowed significantly, in part due to the company's move to veer from Johnson's strategy and go back to operating its online businesses with its physical stores in lockstep. The chain also said it is seeing an encouraging start to the back-to-school season, the second-largest selling period behind the winter holidays.

Bernard Sosnick, a retail analyst at Gilford Securities, said based on the results, he expects Penney to get back to profitability by the fourth quarter.

He also said he wouldn't be surprised if during the first half of next year the chain posted sales increases of 10 percent to 15 percent. Penney's Ullman took a cautiously optimistic tone in his call with investors yesterday. He wouldn't promise that Penney would see a revenue gain in the current quarter.

"As you can see in our results for the quarter, we aren't where we need to be yet," he said. "It is going to take time to get fully back on the right track."

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