JCPenney cuts 4Q outlook by 25%  

Plano, Texas – Home furnishings powerhouse JCPenney bit the bullet in its third-quarter earnings release today and took its medicine with the simple statement: “Management now expects fourth quarter earnings to be in a range of $1.65 to $1.80 per share. This compares with previous guidance of $2.41 per share.”

Skittish investors drove the JCP share price down by more than 5% before midday on the news. The company’s stock posted a 52-week high of $87.18 as 2007 began, but has slumped since an early October price of $69.25 to its current below-$50 trough.

JCPenney’s third-quarter income from continuing operations of $261 million was down 8.7% from the year-ago period’s $286 million. Gross margins took a 5.3% hit year-over-year, even though JCP carefully trimmed SG&A costs by 2.1%.

Quarterly net sales of $4.73 billion edged down 1.1% from $4.78 billion last year. Same-store sales fell 3.5%.

The weakest categories, the company said: children’s apparel and “big ticket home.”

Analysts on today’s conference call peppered management with questions on the home furnishings front. One even asked if the 1,067-unit department store operator planned to retreat from the category in 2008.

A steadfast chairman and ceo Ullman declared, “We are very enthusiastic about the leadership we have in the home business, and our merchants are very optimistic about our ability to build back the business.”

While acknowledging JCP is “not counting on [home] for a lot of growth at the moment,” Ullman emphasized that shoppers consistently say JCP is “the number-one place for the brands they’re looking for in the home” and there would be no walking away from any part of the business. (At No.2 on the HTT Top 50 Retailing Giants list, JCP had $3.065 billion in 2006 home textiles sales.)

He then observed of the competitive climate: “You may have seen Macy’s had some incremental improvement in home after three years or more of very difficult business.”

“It’s important to point out, over the last four months we had the number-one comp increase of all mall anchors as well as specialty stores in the middle of the mall -- and we are ahead of our big-box competitors head-to-head in terms of comps,” Ullman stated.

Mentioning his company’s disappointment with its own September and October sales, Ullman noted the JCP comp gain 2.4% for the July-August period and its 6% comp increase in back-to-school merchandise, an indication that promotional events are key in the current retail environment.

“Our direct business has been particularly soft,” Ullman added, “and has had a significant impact on our results - reflecting that it is driven about 50% by sales in home categories.”

Asked about the problems with “big ticket home,” Ullman said, “The decline in new home starts and decline in consumer remodels in resale homes doesn’t bode well for dramatic improvements in window coverings and big ticket furniture in the near term.”

For the fourth quarter, the company projects a low-single-digit decline in its department store comps and a mid-single-digit decline in direct (catalog and internet) sales.

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