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A Stinky Surprise at Gap

Gap's (NYSE: GPS  ) jump in price today shouldn't have tricked me, but it did. I expected far more exciting news from the retailer's fourth-quarter results. Some investors were obviously surprised by something, but I'm surprised they're so excited. 

True, Gap did increase net income by 21% to $265 million, or $0.35 per share. And of course, the company said it will up its dividend and buy back shares.

But in a turn of events that parallels the situation I noticed at RadioShack (NYSE: RSH  ) earlier this week, Gap's sales are still sad. The retailer's fourth-quarter revenue decreased 5% to $4.68 billion, after all. Same-store sales fell 3%, compared to a 7% decrease in comps this time last year. Banana Republic was the only positive, with a 1% increase in same-store sales versus flat comps last year.

Gap's cash hoard has always been a big part of its investment thesis; it ended the fourth quarter with $1.9 billion in cash. Free cash flow has also recovered, at $1.4 billion compared to $678 million last year. (Gap expects a total of $900 million for the full fiscal year.) That cash does allow Gap to pacify shareholders with dividends and buybacks; let's hope the shares are repurchased at prudent prices.

I know turnarounds require patience, but I'm sure that anybody who's followed Gap may feel like this is the same old story. Cutting costs is one thing, but the real test is whether Gap can woo customers back in the door and get them excited enough to spend.

The landscape is riddled with retailers struggling with turnarounds, and shoppers will be more fickle than ever in these tough economic times. Consider the troubles at Coldwater Creek (Nasdaq: CWTR  ) , Chico's (NYSE: CHS  ) , and bebe Stores (Nasdaq: BEBE  ) , to name just a few. Even so, merely glancing at other retailers' price-to-earnings ratios reveals some stock ideas that look cheaper and offer more room to grow than Gap. Some even pay dividends, including American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE: AEO  ) .

Given Gap's 5% pop today, I was expecting much more from the quarter. I still don't think Gap looks like a stellar stock idea, given the challenges it faces and the possibly irretrievable damage its brand has suffered over the years. Hope may spring eternal for some Gap fans, but I'm still not convinced that Gap can turn things around anytime soon.

Refresh your memory on recent activities at Gap:

Gap, American Eagle Outfitters, and bebe are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Gap has also been recommended by Motley Fool Inside Value. The Fool owns shares of American Eagle.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The  Fool has a disclosure policy.

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