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Shoppers suggest alterations at Gap

Firm's namesake chain is called `uninspired' by one. Its effort to win back customers will fall to a replacement CEO.

January 25, 2007|Leslie Earnest and Abigail Goldman | Times Staff Writers

In the days since Gap Inc. ousted its chief executive, Wall Street has continued to ruminate about the nation's largest specialty retailer's problems and its need to win back customers.

Shoppers, likewise, have plenty to say about how the parent company of 3,200 Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic stores could woo them back and end a continuing sales slump.

Just ask the women at Yoga Works in Costa Mesa. After a morning exercise session this week, they said the company's Gap division needs to keep pace with trends, rethink its advertising and nail its target customer.

"Do they know who their demographic is?" asked Chauna Carallo, a 44-year-old saleswoman from San Diego who buys only jeans from the retailer.

Gap's "uninspired" said Diana Cirillo, 31, a social worker. "Synonymous with conformity."

"It's not a place where you go to get a swirly shirt like this," Cirillo said, unzipping a white Gap sweatshirt that was a gift to reveal a jazzy yoga top in blues and green. At Old Navy, "you get what you pay for because their stuff is cheap," the Irvine resident said. "But it may fall apart. Or wash weird. Or dry weird." Analysts agree that there's plenty to fix at Gap and Old Navy, two struggling chains that account for about 80% of the San Francisco-based retailer's sales.

When the retailer announced Monday that Chief Executive Paul Pressler was resigning, it vowed to find a replacement with a strong background in retailing and "merchandising experience, ideally in apparel." Chairman Robert J. Fisher, son of the company's founders, will serve as CEO in the interim.

Analysts weren't particularly upbeat Tuesday and Wednesday as they shot off notes to clients. Still, Gap shares rose 12 cents Wednesday to $19.38.

"It will take more than a new CEO to turn this ship," Merrill Lynch analyst Lorraine Maikis said.

Names being bandied about as a possible replacement for Pressler include Vanessa Castagna, who last week said she would step down as executive chairwoman of Mervyns. She also worked for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Federated Department Stores Inc.

Castagna would be a great candidate, said Christine Chen, an analyst at Pacific Growth Equities in San Francisco who owns Gap shares.

"She's a wonderful merchant," Chen said. "She knows operations. She's familiar with the private equity world. She's very well respected by both investors and the industry."

One very familiar name resurfaced: Millard "Mickey" Drexler, who spent 19 years with Gap, including seven years as chief executive before being replaced by Pressler in 2002.

Drexler has since revived retailer J. Crew Group Inc. Gap said it did not intend to rehire its former chief. Other names being bandied about include Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. President Roger Farah and Burberry Ltd. Vice Chairwoman Rose Marie Bravo, who breathed new life into Burberry when she served as CEO.

Whoever gets the job will have plenty to do in trying to win back customers, shoppers and analysts agree.

Gap stores have skewed too young for shoppers who remember the stores in their 1990s heyday, and Old Navy stores face tremendous pressure from other low-price fashion sellers such as Target Corp. and H&M, said Chen, who visited Gap's headquarters Tuesday for a look at the company's spring fashions.

Some former Gap fans say they seem to have outgrown the retailer.

"I don't fit the profile anymore," said Crystal Duncan, 44, a Lakewood resident who started shopping at Gap in her 20s. "They're not getting a whole lot of my money anymore."

But it will be fine with Stefanie Cooke, 36, if Gap's clothes stay the same.

"The Gap fills the gap between the runway and Target," the Mission Viejo resident said. "I buy the T-shirt and wear it 500 times."

Their clothes are "a plain canvas" that lets the wearer's personality shine through, she said. "The Gap doesn't get in the way of who I am."

*

leslie.earnest@latimes.com

abigail.goldman@latimes.com

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