What’s the next revolution in online retailing? It might be tying inventory to location so that a customer can find out if the exact size, color and brand of pants she’s looking for are in stock at her local store or in a nearby town.

That’s a project the gurus at JCPenney’s jcp.com are tackling as they seek to expand their market and direct a multi-channel shopping experience that takes advantage of the best tools retailers have to offer. The company reached a record $1 billion in online sales in January with a Web site that is already tailored to consumers by their tastes in clothing and home furnishings.

The site now claims 45 million active customers, JCPenney Direct (catalog and internet) President John Irvin said in March to an audience of marketing graduate and undergraduate students.

That means JCPenney has been able to reach out beyond the 1,000 brick-and-mortar stores to get new customers and tap new markets. “E-commerce is big companies getting smaller in respect to customers, so that we’re not a general merchant like we were in 1902,” Irvin said. “We’re more like a specialty store, we’re one-on-one with the customer’s needs.”

The company had a head-start on the e-commerce revolution when it first established a Web site with an 800-number for orders in 1994. By 1996, jcp.com began accepting secure online ordering, and in 1998 a full-time Internet division of JCPenney was formed as part of JCPenney Direct.

“We’ve been set up for a long time to put the customer first,” Irvin said. But as other companies catch up in e-commerce, jcp.com must do its best to introduce innovation to the online retail environment. Treating the Internet as another branch of JCPenney’s services in multi-channel marketing is key to improved customer service, Irvin finds. That means having in-store Internet terminals to show customers additional merchandise and allowing customers to order online and pick up at a store.

And that even extends to Web page look-and-feel, Irvin says: You don’t want to alienate customers with a major site redesign every month. “Imagine if you go into a store, and every week the lady’s sportswear is on a different floor,” he said. “Customers need to be able to find things in the same places, they grow accustomed to a look and feel, and that carries across all channels.”