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Companies are also adapting to a changing economy. And when it comes to tough markets, New York is one of the toughest retail environments in the country. There are a lot of stores. The rents are sky high, and shoppers are notoriously fickle. So when J.C. Penny opened its first store in midtown Manhattan last month, it had to figure out how to compete. Among other things, that meant learning to deal with customers who expect extra fast service.

NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI: Nineteen-year-old Eric Delgado played high school basketball. He was also on the track team, which was perfect preparation for the job he now has.

Mr. ERIC DELGADO (Runner, Shoe Department, J.C. Penny): We have to move fast. We're always on our toes.

ZARROLI: So how fast are you moving?

Mr. DELGADO: Real fast. We mostly really speed walking, slightly running to get the shoes. Yes. That's why we're true runners.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZARROLI: Delgado works in the shoe department at Penney's in Manhattan. Let's say a customer wants to try on some loafers. The sales associate punches the size and color into a handheld scanner. The information goes to Delgado in the stock room downstairs.

Mr. DELGADO: We get the shoes. We unload them in here. We send them up with the tags of what associate number they asked for, and they come pick it up here and bring it out to the customer.

ZARROLI: The system helps ensure that customers get waited on as quickly as possible. Penney's has 1,100 U.S. stores, so it knows a thing or two about retail. But, like lots of theater producers before it, it's discovered that what works on the road doesn't necessarily cut it on Broadway. Far more than shoppers elsewhere, New Yorkers like things done very, very fast.

Jeff Bank is CEO of Alicart, which owns the New York restaurants Carmine's and Artie's, among others. He says maybe it has something to do with the climate.

Mr. JEFF BANK (CEO, Alicart): We've looked at a couple of locations in Florida, and it's a little slower - hey, enjoy yourself. I think it's something to do with warm weather, I think. I think as you get used to the warmer climate, people go, hey, enjoy it, you know. And I think maybe it's a Northeast thing. You know, a little colder, maybe you ought to move faster to stay warm.

ZARROLI: Whatever the cost, retailers try to serve people fast. Call up a Chinese restaurant in New York and you can have a complete meal delivered to your door in under 10 minutes. Buying a sandwich at a crowded deli counter at lunchtime can feel like running with the bulls at Pamplona.

Seinfeld's Soup Nazi, after all, was based on a real person. And New Yorkers like Clare Posnack tend to expect fast service. I ran into Posnack at Penney's this week. She said she had just a minute to talk.

How important is it to you that you get waited on?

Ms. CLARE POSNACK: It's very important. I have very little time to shop, and I'm on a lunch hour. So I want to do everything as fast as possible.

ZARROLI: What happens when you go into a store or a restaurant and you don't get waited on as quickly as you…

Ms. POSNACK: I leave immediately.

ZARROLI: It's customers like these that Penney's is hoping to satisfy. It's turned its Manhattan store into a shining exemplar of time management. There are a hundred cash registers - more than any other store - and if one breaks down, it can be instantly replaced by a backup. There's an electronic queuing system that funnels customers through a line as fast as possible.

Unidentified Man: Position five is now available.

ZARROLI: There are also eight fitting rooms with 63 stalls - way more than Penney's stores usually have. Pete Sadler is the district manager of Penney's New York stores.

Mr. PETE SADLER (New York District Manager, J.C. Penney): Every last one of the fitting rooms are staffed 100 percent of the time, so the merchandise is constantly flowing in and out and also assisting customers in making their purchase.

ZARROLI: In other words, people don't have to wait for a dressing room.

Mr. SADLER: Well, they may have to wait, but they won't have to wait that long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZARROLI: Sadler, who's from California, has his own theory about why New Yorkers rush around. He says it's because people depend on public transportation, and they're always running to catch a bus or subway train. Of course, fast service alone won't make a store succeed, but for retailers in New York, it's essential, because here's another fact of life in the city: Rents are very high, and businesses that do well need a constant turnover of new customers. All those crowds rushing around are a challenge for stores like Penney's, but it's also what makes New York a potential gold mine.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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