As J.C. Penney Co. aims to re-invent itself, it's hoping a famous former employee can help out.
Talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, who worked at a Penney store in Louisiana as a teen in the 1970s, will make store appearances and star in a new TV ad campaign that will air this spring.
"It's an American company. It's been around for a long time," said DeGeneres, during a recent phone interview with The Associated Press. "In the next few years, this is going to be an entirely different experience. I'm excited that I can help out with that image."
It's a big task. Penney's sales have suffered because its brand is considered stodgy and its stores uninviting. Under the leadership of its new CEO, former Apple executive Ron Johnson, Penney is re-imagining every aspect of the business. Changes include overhauling its price structure, creating a new logo and carving its 1,100 stores into 100 specialty shops, showcasing new brands like Martha Stewart.
But perhaps the biggest challenge for the Plano, Texas-based chain is to sell shoppers on its new pricing, which officially launches Wednesday. Penney is getting rid of hundreds of sales and is now focusing on "everyday" prices and monthly sales events.
The intent is to get control over discounting while still giving shoppers a good deal every time they shop. But customers, accustomed to seeing big discount signs, may need some heavy coaxing. Penney is banking on DeGeneres' down-to-earth humor and big daytime TV following to bring customers in stores to see the changes it is making -- and explain them.
"I think Ellen is someone we all trust. She's loveable, likeable, honest and funny, but at her soul, we trust her," Johnson told The Associated Press.
DeGeneres, who is also a spokesperson for Cover Girl, will appear in five commercials, whose details are mostly under wraps. But one ad spotlights DeGeneres, usually dressed in pants, wearing a dress.
The talk show host addressed the audience at Penney's two-day investor meeting in New York last week through a video.
"I'm excited to tell everybody about this partnership," said DeGeneres. "I'm going to talk about J.C. Penney on my show. I'm going to talk about it to the people in line behind me at Starbucks. The only place I won't talk about it is at the movies because that's rude. That's when I'm going to text about it."
Both Johnson and Michael Francis, Penney's president and former top marketing executive at Target, flew out to see her at her home in Los Angeles in late fall to talk about marketing ideas.
"These guys are thinking outside the box," she added. "They're not stuffy, uptight people. They're kind of down-to-earth guys that I can relate to."
And what did she learn from her experience working at Penney's store in Metairie, La., in the 1970s? Shoppers were sloppy.
"People wouldn't fold," she quipped. "I became anal at a very early age."