In the trenches: The holiday crush at J.C. Penney

Associated Press
In this photo taken Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010, store manager Joe Cardamone inspects the store before opening for business at the Manhattan Mall J.C. Penney store in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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It's hard to keep up with Joe Cardamone.

J.C. Penney's Manhattan store manager, dressed in a suit and tie and wearing comfortable Florsheim black shoes, walks quickly, talks quickly and works quickly. At 4:30 in the morning, he gets to the store to make sure every detail is in place. The bigger challenge? Keeping those details in line on a day when 15,000 to 20,000 customers would storm the place on the busy last shopping weekend before Christmas.

"In my mind, we're ready for it," said Cardamone, standing in his basement level office at the Manhattan Mall, at 5 a.m. Saturday, an hour before the opening. "But how good is good?" The goal is to beat last year's revenue figures, which he described were "fair."

"Hopefully, they'll leave with bags in their hands," added Cardamone, a 36-year-company veteran, who started out as a stock boy at age 16.

The stakes are high. If Thanksgiving weekend is opening night for retailers, the final stretch before Christmas is the finale. With the countdown getting shorter, so is shoppers' patience. A 20-minute wait at the register or frustration of not being able to find the right sweater size for their mother can quickly turn them off to a retailer forever.

So little things matter. Cardamone clutches the walkie-talkie he uses to stay in constant touch with his team. They've got to make sure bathrooms and fitting rooms are kept tidy. Racks of clothing that are growing empty need to be quickly replenished. It's everybody's job to serve shoppers.

Cardamone isn't above helping out shoppers himself, leading them down escalators to the piles of thermal underwear. For J.C. Penney Co., whose business has lagged competitors like Macy's, it's particularly important.

Nowhere is that fight more visible than in Manhattan, where Penney opened a few blocks away from Macy's storied flagship store (the one in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street"; Penney is on 33rd Street) almost two years ago. Penney has to sell twice as many items as Macy's because the average item retails for half as much, Cardamone says.

The Associated Press shadowed Cardamone from 5 a.m. until 8 a.m. on Saturday, and then went back a few hours later, when crowds peaked.

Here's how the day fared:

5 a.m.: Cardamone, who lives in Danbury, Conn. but stayed at a hotel near the store the night before, is at his desk. He glances at the weather reports. About 150 big carts of clothing, from children's wear to accessories, clog the hallways of the basement offices. Most of 22,000 items delivered the night before had been unloaded on the floors. The store doesn't have its own warehouse so there's not much wiggle room for making big merchandise mistakes.

Cardamone says the big sellers will be women's and men's clothing, particuarly sweaters and coats, with children's clothes and shoes taking a back seat. The jewelry department should also be packed. The big concerns, he says, are popular sizes running out, and not being able to give customers something they can walk out with.

5:30 a.m.: Cardamone walks through the two-level store with Jill Groce, general merchandise manager, and Kirk Bell, district manager.

"I'm looking for emptiness," he says.

He soon finds some empty racks in the fleece sleepwear area, and calls Bill Pandolfo, sales support manager, on his walkie-talkie to make sure it's replenished quickly. He checks out the bevy of early morning specials on display, including an assortment of $18.99 griddles marked down from $48.99.

"We'll sell a couple hundred of those," he says.

5:45 a.m.: Cardamone huddles with several merchandise managers to fire them up. "It's more than, 'Hey, how are you?' It's about what can I help you with? You have to be free to help."

5:56 a.m.: Cardamone and other executives gather 80 staffers and offer some final reminders before the store opens: Help customers so they can get them out quickly — and don't point. Lead the customers to what they want. If shoppers can't find something, steer them to the store's website or gift cards.

At the end, they lead an loud and enthusiastic cheer that echoed through the store: "Happy holidays! JCP NYC! Go team!"

6:05 a.m.: Ruby Booker, 63, of Queens, is among the first customers. She's looking for boots, pants and tops. "I'm trying to keep to a budget," she says. She also encounters one of the day's first problems: She can't find the right size in a particular sweater.

6:30 a.m.: Cardamone has already been around the store floor several times. He returns to his office for a Pepsi. "I feel good," he says. He'd better; it's still just the first mile of a marathon.

6:38: Cardamone meets with Waldina Olivera, who oversees staffing, on the sales floor to make sure workers are where they need to be. The store staff will swell to 250 by the day's peak in the afternoon.

6:45 a.m.-7:08 a.m.: Cardamone walks by the home area, then scans clearance racks marked 60 percent off. "This will be heavily shopped today," he said. He spots skimpy offerings of teen scarfs and quickly dispatches an employee to fill them back up.

7:11 a.m.: Cardamone meets with an employee make sure fitting rooms are clean. "Restrooms need to stay perfect," he says. Customers start to steadily file into the store.

7:36 a.m.: Victor Mercado, 48, is sitting on a bench, thumbing through the Penney's flyer. "Want to make sure I'm not missing anything," says Mercado, who showed up at 6:30 a.m. and already has bags filled with sweatshirts and tops for his brothers, brother-in-law and son. He says he only spent $100 and will have to go back another day this week to buy holiday items for his wife. He's on a deadline; he has to be to work by 9.

8 a.m. The crowds increase. Cardamone is eyeing shopping bags to see how filled they are. He says the goal is to have shoppers leave with two or three items.

11 a.m.: The crush of customers has started to take a toll on the store. Some sweater displays look particularly dissheveled.

Noon: It's showtime now. The store is jammed.

Cardamone is watching how the lines are moving and greets sales associate Lemar Poindexter, wearing a Santa hat. Poindexter is handing out water bottles and candy canes to customers in line. "Customers should only wait a minute" in line, Cardamone says. He's confident it's about that, but it looks like it could be more.

12:15 p.m. Cardamone notices Penney is almost out of $5.99 holiday bears and dispatches an associate. The store has sold more than 1,000 so far this season. There won't be any more bears on Saturday, but they'll be replaced by other toys in the afternoon.

12:30 p.m. Cardamone goes upstairs to Manhattan Mall's lobby to find out how the signups for Penney's credit cards are doing and says the store has sold more than 100 gift cards that day.

12:45: "You seem lost? Are you OK?" Cardamone asks a customer. One snafu occurs. An associate approaches him to inform him the accessories register is down again. Cardamone asks them to bring up another one.

12:50 p.m. Customer Lois Green approaches Cardamone to inquire about thermal tops she saw advertised in the flyer. He takes her to the Hanes thermal underwear section. "I remember you. You helped me with my shoes last week," she says. She turns to the reporter: "I wear a size 11, and he took me around to find a pair." But the Hanes items aren't exactly what she's looking for.

Cardamone leads her to another section of the store and shows her thermal tops for $9.99 under the South Pole brand.

Green scoops up two. Another crisis averted.

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