Sometimes I hate retail. Just when you think you've been clever enough to milk a company like Chico's FAS (NYSE:CHS) for a fine gain, it comes back and continues to excel, just to remind you that too much cleverness can be bad for your wallet.

Some of us, though, are just too stubborn to buy into a retailer -- even a good one -- when the shares are riding high. That's what has kept me out of recent barn burners like Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE:ANF) and American Eagle Outfitters (NASDAQ:AEOS). I'm not saying it's a good reason. It's just a reason.

But habits are habits, and I like to buy what the rest of the Street is busy tossing aside. So after reading my colleague Stephen Simpson's cathartic review of Abercrombie's recent quarterly results, I thought back to last Halloween, when I was clever enough to see value in the ailing stock. I highlighted the firm for readers as being a real treat, but I was too [circle all that apply: stupid, lazy, forgetful, distracted, bald] to buy it for myself. Since then, it's returned about 75%.

What I liked about Abercrombie back then, I wonder if I don't see in Pacific Sunwear (NASDAQ:PSUN) now. Yes, the companies are different and even compete in some segments, but some of the similarities are eerie enough to be freaking me out a little bit.

Back then, Abercrombie was still shaking off some stale-looking comps, but it was showing good, overall sales growth in the mid- to low teens. Today, Pacific Sun is in a very similar place, turning in slim comps growth but mid-teens overall sales growth. The worry in both cases was/is that growth would/could be gone forever, and that both stocks have been pummeled accordingly.

Abercrombie's stock back then had been nicked for a quick 20%-plus loss, and it was trading at a P/E ratio near 17 and a reasonable 13 times its healthy free cash flow. Today, Pacific Sun has been smacked down by about 20% over the past few weeks, so it trades at a P/E near 16, and its enterprise value is about 17 times free cash flow, or nine times EBITDA. Back then, Abercrombie's 10% net margins were far better than the industry average. At 9% last year, Pacific Sun's are on par.

Here's where the key may be: returns. Simply put, what does the company return on equity? What does it return on all capital? (In both cases, since the balance sheets are usually debt-free, the returns are the same.) At Abercrombie, the five-year average returns were huge -- near 30%, or more than double the industry averages. Pacific Sun's comparable returns, at just below 20%, aren't quite as high, but they still outrun the majority of the competition.

By my conservative discounted-cash-flow calculation, the shares look fully or even slightly overvalued, but there's a part of me -- the keg-tapping, board-short-wearing, caution-throwing-to-the-breeze-part -- that's saying "Hey, Poindexter! Put down the calculator for a minute and relax."

When a company like Pacific Sun, with a stellar track record of investment returns, hits a top-line snag and the shares take a big dive, that may be reason enough to take a starter position. The kind of management that can consistently put up market-beating ROE and ROIC is the kind of management that can battle back from temporary stumbles. And when the stock price battles back as well, it's no fun to be waiting on the sidelines with no skin in the game, thinking, "Yeah, I knew it."

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Seth Jayson likes retail stocks, even though they've been stepping all over him lately. At the time of publication, he had positions in no firm mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.