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Nation's largest home brand?

JCPenney Home is angling for the crown.

In terms of sales, the JCPenney Home brand is second only to the multi-category Martha Stewart Everyday program at Kmart, company executives said last week during the J.C. Penney Inc. analysts conference here. But with Kmart shuttering stores as it works to exit from bankruptcy, and JCPenney Home rolling out a housewares program launched last year, the company sees itself poised to grab the top spot.

"By the end of 2003, we expect JCPenney Home to be the largest home brand in the country," said Peter McGrath, senior vp of product development, quality and sourcing. "Our goal is to be first in class."

JCPenney owns one-third of the country's window business, said Charlie Chinni, executive vp, gmm, home, fine jewelry and family footwear. The retailer also commands a 15 percent market share in bedding, according to Penney research. Chinni said the home department has improved sales per square foot by 19 percent over the past two years. Leading that growth have been sheets, top of bed, down products and pillows. Areas of opportunity going forward include the mattress business, housewares (now in 500 of the company's 1,049 stores) and hard window.

"We're getting double-digit increases in hard window and made-to-measure," he said. "We're not the largest in hard window, but we will be."

JCPenney also is beginning to do its first cross-merchandised sets in the bedding area, said Chinni. One set, seen during a tour of the Frisco, TX, store, pulled together side tables, lamps, vases, framed art and tchotchkes.

"We're making it clear that JCPenney has the most complete and compelling assortment in three channels [stores, catalog and Internet] for the moderate customer," Chinni said.

Last year, company research on consumer preferences in home yielded 45 points of value that Penney now uses to shape its merchandising decisions, McGrath said. As a result Penney expanded the number of hues in its JCPenney towel program, supplied by Pillowtex, to 42 colors — "the largest towel palette in the industry," McGrath said. "We also teamed that effort with an expansion in the higher-margin bath mat category."

It also resized sheeting to accommodate deeper mattresses and made sizing larger on blankets, throws and top of bed — part of an overall merchandise and marketing effort to make "big" bigger.

Penney also is taking a more proactive approach to product development, with a new fabric team responsible for global fabric research and development. In addition, the company's two-year-old trend team shops the market domestically and internationally to get an early line on the direction of women's fashions, accessories and home. Their responsibility is to "set the vision for the season," McGrath said. One of the team's scores in home was Arabella, a pieced jacquard comforter set priced at $275.

Next on the team's agenda in home: sheets, curtains, dinnerware and a line of embroidered velvet pillows. Priced at $30 to $50, the pillows will rival department store pillows priced at $80, McGrath said.

It's part of Penney's larger initiative in key categories to be first to market in the moderate channel with fashion merchandise. To date, the company has reduced product development time by 33 percent, McGrath said, trimming six weeks off its previous cycle.

Although Penney has not yet hit the "best in industry" cycle of a 10- to 12-week turnaround from order to delivery, it is pursuing 25 initiatives designed to pare down its window. They include a standardization of fabrics, establishment of mill allowances and pursuit of a seven-day fabric dying cycle, McGrath said.

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