By  on March 5, 2007

Across the apparel specialty retail sector this season, "Help Wanted" signs are almost as visible as point-of-sale markdowns, with an unprecedented number of top-level jobs up for grabs.

This is the time of year when retailers release their fourth-quarter and year-end results and, at those chains having tough times, also let go executives from their jobs, figuring fresh blood is needed to turn things around.

While there are standouts in the sector — such as J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle Outfitters — many well-known names are struggling with sluggish growth or sharply declining profits, like Gap Inc. These retailers have serious issues revolving around product, positioning and execution and are challenged by an aging population and a lack of management bench strength.

"I don't think there is a common denominator, but there is an unusual number of vacancies. This is a very good time to be a candidate," noted Hal Reiter, president and chief executive officer of Herbert Mines Associates search firm.

In most cases where big jobs must be filled, "companies are looking for the great creative talent who can enhance the brand through the product and the marketing," observed Margaret Mager, retail analyst and managing director for Goldman Sachs & Co. "That type of commercial/creative talent is a scarce commodity. Truly creative geniuses you can count on one hand. Specialty chains also want people who can lead organizations, translate vision and get groups to execute on a vision. That's rare, too. At the end of the day, you can't institutionalize creativity. Technology is a wonderful thing for business, but it also has the ability to stifle creativity. Great merchants like Mickey Drexler and Michael Jeffries came of age when technology didn't stymie creativity."

The dearth of merchant talent is an issue across the entire retail industry, but analysts and headhunters agree the brain drain is acutely apparent in the fashion specialty sector, underscored by the situation at Gap Inc., which has several executive slots to fill. Gap will begin its hunt for a new ceo in earnest this quarter. A search firm is expected to be hired soon. "We're not sitting idly," said Robert Fisher, chairman, during a conference call last Thursday. He's been the interim ceo since Paul Pressler was pushed out last January and said he has no intention of taking the ceo job permanently.

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