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JC Penney's Q1 results beat expectations as sales improve; stock surges

FILE - In this April 9, 2013 file photo, a customer leaves a JC Penney store in New York. JC Penney reports quarterly financial results after the market closes on Thursday, May 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

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FILE - In this April 9, 2013 file photo, a customer leaves a JC Penney store in New York. JC Penney reports quarterly financial results after the market closes on Thursday, May 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

NEW YORK, N.Y. - J.C. Penney said a key sales figure rose in its first quarter, offering an encouraging sign for the beleaguered department store operator.

The company, which is based in Plano, Texas, said sales at stores open at least a year rose 6.2 per cent in the period, marking the second straight quarterly gain. The figure, a key indicator of health for retailers, had tumbled 16.6 per cent in the year-ago period.

Penney's stock surged more than 20 per cent to $10.08 in aftermarket trading.

The company has been trying to recover from a botched transformation plan by former CEO Ron Jonson that resulted in massive losses and plunging sales. Johnson, the mastermind behind Apple's retail concept, was ousted in April of last year after 17 months on the job, and the board brought back former CEO Mike Ullman.

Ullman is trying to win back shoppers by restoring sales events and basic merchandise the company ditched under Johnson's tenure in a bid to attract affluent, younger consumers. The efforts have included the discontinuation of some brands like William Rast and Joe by Joseph Abboud that were brought in by Johnson but didn't resonate with Penney's middle-income shoppers.

Ullman is also revamping the home area, a key driver of customer traffic, after Johnson's plan to overhaul the section with too many trendy and pricy items didn't sit well with customers.

"It is clear that our efforts to re-merchandise many areas of the store and revamp our messaging to the customer are taking hold," Ullman said in a statement Thursday.

Still, he noted later in a conference call with analysts that "there's still work to be done."

The company also said it would simplify the way it calculates its sales at stores open at least a year going forward, with sales return estimates and other items no longer being included. Under that new methodology, J.C. Penney said its sales at stores open at least a year rose 7.4 per cent in the period.

Looking ahead, J.C. Penney Co. said it expect sales at established stores to rise in the mid-single digits and gross margin to improve significantly from last year. When asked about a CEO succession plan, Ullman said there's "no major changes on the horizon."

But the company's results still show that it needs to increase how much profit it makes on each item and do more to bring back customers.

For the period ended May 3, the company said it lost $352 million, or $1.15 per share, which was better than the loss of $1.25 per share analysts expected. A year ago, the lost $1.58 per share.

Revenue rose to $2.8 billion, above the $2.71 billion analysts expected.

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