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Fashion statements. It isn't easy to make one, and fickle consumers move quickly from one fad to another. Even the hottest blasts from the past are laid to rest after a short comeback. And making a successful comeback isn't easy -- in fact, it's nearly impossible.
Move over, Gap; your time is up
But someone apparently needs to relay that message to Gap (NYSE: GPS ) . Unlike the quick boom and bust trends like Crocs (Nasdaq: CROX ) , the khaki king flourished for many years during the 1990's as the Internet boom created casual work environments, and workers sought out a relaxed and affordable look. Preppy was “in” and so was Gap. From 1995 through 2000, the company tripled its sales and grew earnings per share by 280%.
Joining the likes of leg warmers, shoulder pads, and bellbottoms, however, the “Gap look” days have expired. Trendier rivals like The Buckle (NYSE: BKE ) and Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF ) have moved in and stolen market share and in the past five years, the company has seen its revenue inch up just 1.7% annually. But Gap refuses to let go of its past, and both management and investors have been hunting for a turnaround strategy for years.
Don't fall into the value gap
Arguably, from a quantitative perspective, Gap's clean balance sheet and forward P/E multiple less than 12, makes it a compelling value play if the brand could eventually be revitalized. The problem is, I'm not convinced a rejuvenation of Gap is even possible.
For starters, the company's leaders lack a strong understanding of the fashion world. Its CEO of five years, Paul Pressler (who had no previous retail experience), was fired last year after proving that fixing Gap wasn't his forte. Glen Murphy, who stepped in to fill the role, also has no experience selling clothes. How an ailing retailer believes it can turn itself around with leaders that have no fashion savvy is beyond me.
Of course, this problem might just explain why Gap lacks focus on knowing its target customer. Management doesn't seem to know who its audience is, let alone know how to please it. These days, specialty retailers like Zumiez (Nasdaq: ZUMZ ) and Urban Outfitters (Nasdaq: URBN ) build niches for diverse styles and age groups, and then stick to them. But Gap's look is inconsistent, as it desperately attempts to unearth its core customer, whoever that might be. Management has been floundering around testing out urban styles one minute, switching back to basic khaki next, aiming to find someone … anyone … that will buy their apparel.
This point has been evident more than ever this year at the company's Old Navy stores. The concept, which has actually grown larger than Gap's flagship brand, has seen its same store sales drop jaw-dropping amounts the past several months. In March and May of this year, comps plummeted 27% and 25% respectively as customers complained the stores neglected its core shopper by transitioning its focus on more youthful style.
Patience is a virtue, but for only so long
Gap isn't going anywhere. It's one of the largest specialty retailers as its market cap trounces any of its nearest competitors and it isn't going to disappear anytime soon. But that's just it: The company really isn't going anywhere. The business has proven stagnant over the last several years, with management failing at every attempt to stimulate sales. I see little upside potential for the stock and think betting on its ability to make its way back into the closets of trendsetters is a big gamble.
While it's easy to get sidetracked by its healthy financials and cheap stock price, analyzing the company from a qualitative view makes Gap seem wildly unattractive. Gap's heyday years are over and investors' capital that is tied up in this never-ending turnaround project will be much better served looking elsewhere -- the slumped market has left loads of retailers selling at some of the best values we've seen in decades. American Eagle (NYSE: AEO ) , for example, is selling at just 8.2 times next year's earnings, as its stock has been driven down due to macro reasons (rather than the company-specific issues that plague Gap).
The CAPS community looks like it concurs, as Gap is rated just one star out of five, while American Eagle still soars at four stars. What do you think? If you're tossing Gap out of your closet, come on over to CAPS and rate this stock to "underperform."