The Day the Mall Went Dark

There are some things in life that you can always depend on -- the rising of the sun in the east, Law & Order reruns, and Gap.com when you need a quick khaki fix.

So when the omnipresent purveyor of wardrobe staples and wearable trendies shut its virtual doors to business for a brand-wide e-tail experience makeover in late August, middle-of-the-road fashionistas like myself felt like the world had come to a standstill.

What? No low-rise, boot-cut, Long-and-Lean jeans in "whiskered rinse"? No fitted waffle Ts in various shades of sorbet? Banana's clearance section is inaccessible even to moi?

For two whole weeks, Gap Inc.'s (NYSE: GPS  ) Gap.com, OldNavy.com, and BananaRepublic.com went dark. The world's fashion safety net was yanked. Brokers were wandering Wall Street with frayed khaki cuffs. Metrosexuals suddenly had to coordinate their own ties and button-downs. Black T-shirts the land o'er turned a paler shade of gray from overlaundering.

Without guidance, would women the world over no longer know what to wear to cocktail parties? What would become of the little black dress?

Then slowly, on a limited-access basis, desperate customers were allowed a sneak preview of the new online stores. A co-worker was the first to find the workaround -- a method akin to banging the TV on the side to clear up the fuzzy picture. After getting the "closed for renovations" page, she kept hitting "refresh." After a while, Gap.com relented and let her in.

Is the cart half empty or half full?
Those who were granted a preview of the new Gap website were introduced to the new era of e-tailing. (Update your browser because pop-ups and mouse-overs are the way the cool kids will be shopping in the future.) First, there's "Quicklook" -- a pop-up inventory overview showing what colors and sizes are available in each item. For more details and a bigger picture, the "Product Page" offers fit specifics and additional style details. "Outfitting" puts together an entire kicky look where you can click boxes and add the ensemble in its entirety -- or just select pieces -- to your shopping bag. "Inline Shopping Bag" shows you what's in your cart without leaving the page.

And when you've maxed out the plastic, you can head to the checkout, where you will find pictures of your purchases -- editable and with the option of putting your impulse purchases aside for your next visit. Soon you'll be able to shop by size and track your order at every weigh station transfer.

All of these features -- designed in-house at Gap, a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation -- are designed to keep customers on the shopping page without having to click the browser's back button every time you add something to your cart.

My colleague put a moleskin coat in her shopping cart, but I wasn't as lucky. I couldn't get through at all. I felt like the guy in the Citibank ad sitting on his bed drawing a shirt and tie on his body with a magic marker while waiting for his rewards check.

Excuse me, but I have a wedding to attend this weekend, and I need a cute satiny dress in a cheerful color and matching handbag. Maybe even a new pair of slingbacks and a creatively-patterned shawl to drape over my shoulders for those breezy mid-September evenings. What do you mean I have to get in my car and go to the mall? I've got nothing to wear to the mall because I've been unable to shop online for two weeks! And with gas prices at more than $3 a gallon, who can afford to make a trip to the mall every time the whim to buy a new fall accessory hits?

$12 billion in cute black shoes
The e-tailing dark days were a flashback to 1996, when people proudly quoted from "The World Wide Web" and AOL was practically the only ISP. Back then, glitches on the information superhighway were just the cost of commuting in a new medium.

These days, a major business putting operations on hold is, well, very inconsiderate and un-Weblike of them. The renovations will cost Gap Inc. millions in sales, given that last year online and catalog sales accounted for about $500 million. All told, online shoppers will drop more than $12 billion on clothing and accessories this year.

Gap competitors didn't gain much from the fashion blackout, according to an article in The New York Times. An Internet research and consulting firm said that there was no spike in visitors who, having been rebuffed by Gap.com, went on to competitor websites.

I'm not surprised. In desperation, I clicked over to the competition and found that two of my favorites -- Urban Outfitters (Nasdaq: URBN  ) and its sister Anthropologie.com -- were a bit too pricey to justify any impulse purchases. (Urban's stock price is also a bit up there, according to a few resident analysts, but could be a bargain long-term if the company keeps up its recent growth.)

Ann Taylor (NYSE: ANN  ) is a tad corporate for my dot-com spirit, and its Loft offshoot, although promising, is still a bit buttoned-up. The New York & Co. (NYSE: NWY  ) website doesn't even offer online shopping (possibly why it has been bumming out shareholders lately, including the khaki-clad Hidden Gems guys who hold shares). And Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF  ) -- well, I'm not really comfortable showing that much belly in public.

I guess I'll just have to bite the bullet and do laundry until Gap.com is open for business again.

For more on the intersection of shopping and investing:

Gap is aMotley Fool Stock Advisorrecommendation. Want to find out what other companies David and Tom Gardner have on their minds? Click here to take a 30-day free trial.

Dayana Yochimis a confessedshopaholic. She owns many items from some of the aforementioned stores, but no shares in any of their stock. The Fool's disclosure policy matches her shoes.


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