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Clothes Minded

When I was in Cub Scouts, my den had a favorite skit. It entailed a series of boys parading across the campfire area, each complimented in turn on an item of their clothing. “I like your hat; where’d you get it?” “J.C. Penney.” “I like your shirt; where’d you get it?” “J.C. Penney.” “I like your pants.” You get the picture. The punchline, which came at the end, as punchlines do, was basically this: A boy, wrapped in a towel, runs across the campfire area, and a person asks, “Who are you?” “I’m J.C. Penney!”

When I was in Cub Scouts, my den had a favorite skit. It entailed a series of boys parading across the campfire area, each complimented in turn on an item of their clothing. “I like your hat; where’d you get it?” “J.C. Penney.” “I like your shirt; where’d you get it?” “J.C. Penney.” “I like your pants.” You get the picture. The punchline, which came at the end, as punchlines do, was basically this: A boy, wrapped in a towel, runs across the campfire area, and a person asks, “Who are you?” “I’m J.C. Penney!”

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That’s how I’ve always perceived J.C. Penney. A little white bread. A little down scale. A little, well, slow as a company. Subject to subtle ridicule. So imagine my surprise and delight when I learned in the New York Post of all papers this morning that the company is actually rather innovative. While many clothiers are building, shall we say, technology into their wares — from Wal-Mart to Paul Stewart — J.C. Penney is ahead of the pack.

Starting with the wrinkle-free shirt and washable suit, performance fabrics now account for about a fourth of clothing sales. And J.C. Penney is working on new fabric innovations, including microbial-fueled odor-eating underwear and collagen-injected socks to help keep your feet sleek. In addition, while many other companies use external R&D labs for new fabrics, J.C. Penney supports three testing factories, which employ almost 50 employees.

And it has done so since 1929, when J.C. Penney opened its first lab. Admittedly, J.C. Penney didn’t hook its strategy on product development and testing until the mid-1990s, but knowing that the company has an inside R&D team tinkering like mad Garanimals scientists has changed my perception of the company quite a bit.

Instead of seeming harried and flustered — like that half-clad Cub Scout whose clothes were stolen — say it with pride: “I’m J.C. Penney!”

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