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JCP’s New CEO Might Come With One Very Important Secret Weapon

After yesterday’s announcement that J.C. Penney has appointed Jill Soltau CEO, speculation of what’s next for the department store can begin in earnest.

Soltau, who steps into the role on Oct. 15, has three decades of retail experience, most recently as the head of fabric and craft chain Joann Stores. Prior to that, she was president of Shopko Stores, a chain of 363 stores across 24 states that offers a range of products spanning clothing to home goods.

Neil Saunders, managing director of retail for financial services firm GlobalData, is optimistic about the pick, saying a fresh perspective was needed for the company, which has struggled to find its identity and footing. For him, Soltau seems like a good fit given her experience with apparel and retail turnarounds.

In addition to those benefits, Saunders said Soltau might have one other major advantage over her predecessors: she’s a woman. “A lot of problems at retailers is about not connecting with customers properly, and especially in the case of J.C. Penney that is with women,” he said. “I think they could use someone with an intuitive grasp who has really thought that problem out.”

Even before this hire, however, the department store chain had been pondering its woman problem. The company had been investing in apparel by boosting its activewear assortment, speeding up product development for house labels and pursuing plus-size consumers. But in July, Penney’s admitted its focus had been off. While those steps might have been the right ones to take, they were focused on the wrong demographic. Instead of courting younger consumers, the retailer now says moms in their 50s and 60s are its core shopper.

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The Soltau appointment follows the resignation of Marvin Ellison, who left in May after about three and a half years as chief executive. While there, Ellison attempted to redirect the department store out of a reliance on apparel and into categories that he hoped would attract shoppers, who he deemed to primarily be homeowners.

“He made sensible progress there, however, what he did was to go to the categories he was comfortable with being at Home Depot before. J.C. Penney got the fresh pair of eyes but didn’t take on someone who had a deep understanding of the categories that were problematic, which was really apparel,” Saunders said.

Instead, Ellison dove into the home category with repair services and appliances, a move that J.C. Penney chairman Ronald Tysoe now seems skeptical of. In July, Tysoe told The Wall Street Journal that the retailer had kind of thrown “the baby out with the bathwater” in attempting to reinvent itself.

How much of Ellison’s plan to bring in HVAC services, bathroom remodels and blinds installations will remain under Soltau remains to be seen. It may depend on how committed the company is to pursuing the Sears consumer, a goal Ellison had set during his tenure.

While Saunders said there’s opportunity to woo that consumer, he’s not sure it would be worth it. “What’s left of Sears—I don’t think J.C. Penney really wants to chase that customer. It’s older, less fashion forward and they buy less frequently. They need the younger family shopper where there’s more spending,” he said. Further, he added, picking up those shoppers would require real work given that “if J.C. Penney were that compelling, the customers would already go there.”