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New chief dives in at Pacific Sunwear

APPAREL

Sally Frame Kasaks aims to return the retailer to its wholesome roots.

July 07, 2007|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

As a child, Sally Frame Kasaks moved from Detroit to Iran with her missionary parents and her brother. There they lived without electricity or plumbing, and young Sally developed a knack for adapting.

Good thing.

Kasaks will need all the malleability she can muster in her new position as the first female chief executive of surf and skate apparel seller Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. She started by asking the big questions: What do teenagers want? How do they communicate? What influences them?

"I can't even read the language, I'll be honest," admitted Kasaks, 63, who likes digging in the garden and hanging out with her grandchildren. "But I think I've learned to land in new and strange situations, in difficult situations, and adapt -- remain who I am while still assimilating in some way."

So far, the stylish 5-foot-10-inch Kasaks seems to have slipped fairly easily into her role after 10 years on Pacific Sunwear's board and a stint as interim CEO. Analysts say she's a smart choice for the job of reviving the struggling retailer, which operates the PacSun and d.e.m.o. chains. When Kasaks told employees she was staying on, they responded with "thunderous applause," said a vice president who attended the meeting in late May.

It's anybody's guess how long the honeymoon will last. Kasaks, in an interview at the Anaheim headquarters, said she already had warned her team to "be careful what you wish for. We've got a lot of work to do."

After years of positioning itself as a mall magnet for teens who like surf and skate brands such as Volcom, Billabong and Quiksilver, PacSun's attraction weakened over the last year. Sales at stores open a year or more, a key measure of a retailer's health, fell in 13 of the last 16 months. In May, the company -- which recently shuttered 74 of its urban-themed d.e.m.o. stores -- posted its first quarterly loss, a $5.1-million deficit.

To reverse the trend, PacSun is trying to get back to its saltwater roots and pull more girls into its stores.

"The top priority is to reconnect with our customer," said Kasaks, who moved to Corona del Mar from her 30-acre home in Vermont to take on the task.

After getting "a bit dark" with its guy offerings last year, the company now is playing up its more wholesome surf heritage, which Kasaks thinks will resonate with shoppers who seem drawn to all things green.

"In this day of global warming and environmentalism," she said, "what's better than a board and a wave?"

Though analysts say PacSun has been losing ground to competitors, the company says its research has found that its boy shoppers remain closely connected to PacSun stores. But girls, who spend more and shop with friends, were distracted by other options -- Hollister, American Eagle Outfitters and Aeropostale. The trendy, feminine styles at fast-fashion chains, such as Forever 21, also were influencing their purchases.

"This fast-fashion thing is real; this girlie thing is real," said Kasaks, pointing out the tomboyish offerings that PacSun historically stocked. It's surprising "how badly we have missed that market."

That may be shifting.

In the window display at the Brea Mall store, sundresses share space with surfboards. Walk inside and the first shelf you bump into is laden with tank tops trimmed with lace. Racks hold plaid jumpers and eyelet shorts. Girls, who outnumbered guys at this store on a recent afternoon, liked the changes.

"They have more variety than they used to," said Monica Caringal, 16, of Anaheim. "They're getting more feminine too."

That suits Kayce Bahlenhorst, 17, of Brea, who also likes PacSun's "beachy" styles. "I like the different colors and how you can pretty much mix and match everything," she said.

While trying to reel in the girls, PacSun executives initially worried that it might turn off guys. But they've scratched that off the worry list.

"They don't mind being in stores with cute girls," Kasaks said. "That's kind of just the hormone thing that kicks in at some point."

PacSun also is remodeling stores with females in mind. After all, girls need a certain amount of privacy for the endless trying on of clothes and commiserating. Guys, on the other hand, usually don't try on anything, said Kasaks, a lesson she learned when she took her grandson shopping for his sixth birthday.

He walked into the store, picked out a pair of cargo shorts, a black zip-front hoodie and a shirt. Then he pointed to a baseball cap and said, " 'OK. Nana, let's go,' " Kasaks recalled. "The whole process took about six minutes, including the fight we had trying to get him into the fitting room."

Kasaks said she also hated shopping when she was a kid, but she's spent plenty of time in stores. She took her first job in retailing at 19 as a salesclerk and spent most of her life working in the industry. She later became CEO of Talbots Inc. and of Abercrombie & Fitch Co., when it was still a division of Limited Brands Inc. Kasaks was CEO of Ann Taylor Stores Inc. until 1996.

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