By all indications, Gap (NYSE: GPS ) had a healthy 2003 with rising comps, and earnings more than doubling to $1.09 a share. The problem with fashion, though, is that it's not even skin deep. Vindication will have to wait; after all, the shares still trade for less than half of what they fetched four years ago.
If anything, last year's same-store sales gain of 7% was a baby step in the right direction. For the last three years, comps had run negative by 6%, 16%, and 3%, respectively. Gap would have to grow sales by 22% to get back to Y2K levels, and that's without adjusting for inflation. Liked the earnings number? You should have seen 1999 when the company earned $1.26 a share.
Loathsome as it is to kick a company just as it's starting to pick itself off the floor, we have to be realistic. Gap isn't back. It's got a long way to go just to get to where it was. Worse, it must travel a landscape littered with standbys American Eagle Outfitters (Nasdaq: AEOS ) and Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF ) , not to mention clever usurpers like Hot Topic (Nasdaq: HOTT ) .
All that having been said, CEO Paul Pressler, who left Disney (NYSE: DIS ) to lead Gap a year and a half ago, either timed his jump perfectly or truly has the company heading in the right direction. I'm guessing it's a bit of both. Let's just say, he's got my attention.
But before we jump on the bandwagon, let's see the comps grow from 2003's lay-up levels. Let's also see earnings come through a little higher now that the company has held back its expansion plans, at least until its Old Navy, Banana Republic, and namesake concepts are booming again.
Then -- and only then -- will can we say that Gap is back.
Which is the real Gap? Is it the company that has thrived over the past year, or the one that struggled before that? What must the retailer do in order to continue to appreciate? All this and more -- in the Gap discussion board. Only on Fool.com.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz fell into the gap once. He proceeded to claw his way out. He does not own shares in any companies mentioned in this story.