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JCPenney, a retail brand founded in Kemmerer, Wyoming, in 1902, is spending more than $1 billion to enhance customer experiences across its 650-plus stores and e-commerce platform and is focused on everything from optimizing operations to improving digital capabilities.

The huge customer experience strategy comes on the heels of launching JCPenney Beauty and store refreshes. The retail titan is focused on upgrading its website as well as its mobile app, improving online search functionality and developing customized product and styling recommendations. The brand employs more than 50,000 associates.

The huge to-do task list is being led by Sharmeelee Bala who joined JCPenney as CIO in January 2022. In reporting to CEO Marc Rosen, she is responsible for the IT organization and global technology systems that power JCPenney's stores, operational centers and supply chain, and corporate functions.

Before joining JCPenney Bala headed up product engineering at Gap Inc., and also led Gap's its Hyderabad Development Center based in India. Prior to Gap she spent nearly two decades in various senior leadership roles at Walmart Labs.

To get deeper insight on the $1 billion customer experience strategy, RetailCustomerExperience.com reached out to Bala in an email interview.

Q. Let's kick off talking about your current role and past roles.

Bala: I joined JCPenney in January 2022 as the CIO. As CIO, my responsibilities include ensuring the information technology organization and global technology systems that power our company have a strong foundation, from our stores, our e-commerce/digital eco system and operational centers to our corporate functions.

I've been at the intersection of retail and technology for nearly 25 years. Before joining JCPenney, I was the head of product engineering at Gap Inc., responsible for providing leadership, strategy and vision in the development, design and implementation of all global systems to support every function across Gap's portfolio of brands. I started my career at Walmart and later Walmart Labs, where I spent almost 20 years in various senior positions including leading Walmart's supply chain, enterprise data and analytics and end-to-end merchandising systems.

Q. As CIO what are your top focus points and does customer experience fit into all those points?

Bala: As a company, we are hyper-focused on serving our customers by enhancing the customer experience. Technology plays a crucial role in a customer's retail experience, whether shopping online or in-store, so much of the work I'm doing as CIO is ensuring that our technology and tools support a strong customer experience every time someone shops with us.

I'm focused on building a strong foundation and using technology that will serve us now and into the future, working with my team to set high standards for data management and using the appropriate cutting-edge tools that are making us more efficient. For customers, that means coming into stores and having a smooth experience at checkout, or shopping online and finding what they want seamlessly. It also means using tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning to help determine optimal fulfillment routes for our e-commerce orders so customers get their products delivered quickly.

Q. How critical is providing a rewarding CX today and what do you think consumers are expecting from a retailer?

Bala: Shoppers today have endless options, but we know that one of the things that keeps customers coming back to JCPenney is our value proposition through an incredible customer service and our commitment to make shopping with us a truly rewarding experience. Customers expect retailers to provide a personalized experience that makes shopping seamless. People are busy, and they're looking to spend their hard-earned dollars in places where they can get quality, value and a great shopping experience. We are focused on leveraging tools and technology to give customers that incredible experience they're looking for.

Q. Can you share how the $1B reinvestment relates to the CX strategy and share any insight on projects?

Bala: Our self-funded reinvestment is squarely focused on enhancing our customer experience, no matter where and how customers shop with us. We are implementing new tools to optimize inventory management and capture data to inform decisions about merchandise planning, allocation, fulfillment and replenishment, so customers can always find the right product at the right place and the right time.

Additional investments in technology to modernize our supply chain will offer more efficient and cost-effective ways to fulfill orders and reduce delivery times — in fact, this month we unveiled a new state-of-the-art packing and sorting system called the Joey Pouch in our Reno, Nevada, distribution center. We're the only company using this version of the consolidated ecosystem in the U.S.

We've also invested in enhanced tools which will scale our ability to provide customized and localized product assortments in tune with local community preferences and trends. In stores, we're investing in upgrades to our store technology and WiFi networks to ensure both associates and customers have the needed flexibility and the best experience while shopping with us.

Q. What is JCPenney focused on when it comes to improving its digital capabilities?

Bala: We are focused on improving our customer experience and making sure that our shoppers find the right products at the right place, time and price. Part of our reinvestment is focusing on enhancing our digital capabilities, highlighting the value we offer through a more seamless shopping experience and increased customer personalization. We've already seen that our website improvements have revamped the online shopping experience for customers, which has led to shoppers purchasing more items on average during each transaction. We're also always looking to optimize our shipping routes and nodes, so customers get the right order quickly.

Q. How is AI evolving at JCPenney and in the retail industry overall from your viewpoint?

Bala: I see retailers using generative AI in two major ways. The first is for process streamlining. AI can be used to help optimize some of our processes for forecasting, demand and product automations. The second really isn't new and it's something retailers have been doing for a long time, which is using AI to enhance the customer experience through personalization and product recommendations.

At JCPenney, we're using AI to create more efficiencies in our ways of working, from implementing tech automations to help our team deliver more efficiently to using AI tools to help with reporting and analysis. We are also automating manual work where it makes sense the risk is low.

With customers, we're using AI for skincare analysis as part of our partnership with Revieve, a digital tech company that leverages AI/AR and offers easy-to-use self-diagnostic modules that personalize search, product discovery and shopping experiences for consumers.

Q. What should retailers be mindful of when integrating AI into operations?

Bala: It's important to keep a human element to some degree — in other words, augment instead of complete automated work. Even with good data, AI can articulate a result that isn't right for our business or for our customers. Retailers should use AI for efficiencies and enhancements, but not as a replacement for people.