AP Retail Writer
NEW YORK (AP) -- J.C. Penney Co. executives may be confident in the department-store chain's everyday low pricing strategy, but its investors are panicking.
The company's stock fell more than 13 percent on Monday -- the biggest percentage decline by far for the day among big companies in the S&P 500 index. Penney stock lost nearly $3 to close at just under $18, its lowest price since March 2009 when the United States was in a deep recession.
The drop follows Standard & Poor's move to lower Penney's credit rating deeper into junk status on Friday. And that came on the same day that the company reported its third consecutive quarter of big losses and sales declines since it decided earlier this year to get rid of hundreds of coupons and sales annually in favor of predictable low prices every day.
It's the latest sign that Wall Street isn't any happier with Penney's pricing than Main Street is. Investors had pushed Penney stock up 24 percent to about $43 after the company announced the pricing plan in late January. But customers haven't warmed to Penney's pricing, and investors have grown cold on the stock. With Monday's drop, Penney's stock has lost nearly half of its value this year.
Penney, which announced its plans for the holiday shopping season on Monday, did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment about its stock price. But in a meeting on Friday with investors, executives assured them that the company has enough money to continue with the strategy.
CEO Ron Johnson, the mastermind behind Apple Inc. stores who took the top job at Penney a year ago, also reiterated his confidence in the plan and said returning the company to growth is "Job. No. 1." Additionally, he touted the early success of the makeover Penney began this fall of 700 of its 1,100 stores with 10 sectioned-off shops inside each that feature different brands such as Levi's and Penney's new JCP line of casual clothes.
"The CEO was selling the hope, but now investors are looking at what the company will look like in the first half of the year," said Brian Sozzi, a chief equities analyst for research firm NBG Productions who follows the company. "Investors are digesting the reality."
The reality is a lot harsher than Johnson imagined when he rolled out his pricing plan on Feb. 1. The goal was to wean customers off of the deep discounts that they'd become addicted to, but that were eroding profits.
He got rid of coupons and nearly 600 sales Penney offered at various times throughout the year. In their place, the company rolled out a three-tiered strategy that permanently lowered prices on all items in the store by 40 percent, offered monthlong deeper discounts on select merchandise and added periodic clearance events throughout the year.
But as Penney's coupons and sales disappeared, so did its customers. The company's losses and sales declines began to pile up. Johnson made some tweaks to the pricing plan -- he got rid of the monthlong sales events in August. But that didn't help.
On Friday, Penney reported its third consecutive quarterly loss that missed Wall Street estimates. The company, based in Plano, Texas, said it lost 56 cents per share, or $123 million, in the quarter ended Oct. 27. Revenue dropped nearly 27 percent to $2.93 billion. Analysts had expected a loss of 15 cents a share on revenue of $3.27 billion.
Revenue at stores open at least a year -- a key measure of a retailer's health -- plummeted about 26 percent. That's higher than the 17.6 percent drop analysts had been expecting. Meanwhile, the number of customers coming into the store dropped 12 percent from the year-ago period.
On the news, Penney stock fell 5 percent, or $1.05, to close at $20.64 on Friday. Then, after the market closed, Standard & Poor's lowered its rating on Penney's credit, which was already in junk status, by two notches.
S&P's credit analyst David Kuntz said in a statement that although he believes Penney's outlook is stable because liquidity will remain "adequate," the company's performance may weaken further over the next 12 months.
"Credit metrics have deteriorated substantially and we believe that they could erode further over the next few quarters," Kuntz said.
Now analysts, many of who once used words like "revolutionary" to describe Johnson's plan, are having doubts. Citi Group's Deborah Weinswig, who at first lauded Penney's pricing plan, wrote in a report Monday that the early sales performance of Penney's shops-within-stores is "encouraging." Still, she slashed her fourth-quarter earnings estimate for the company to 30 cents from $1.30.