NEW YORK — There’s no mercy for retailers.

Kathy Bronstein, vice chairman and chief executive officer of The Wet Seal Inc., was forced out Thursday, becoming the latest casualty in a season of pink slips. Since January, top merchants have exited Ann Taylor, Linens & Things, Toys ‘R’ Us, Bath & Body Works, Coach, Talbots, Filene’s, J.C. Penney, Parisian and J. Crew, reflecting hard times at retail and a need for new direction.

"The pace of high-profile retail departures is about as high as I’ve ever seen it," said Kirk Palmer, of the executive search firm bearing his name.

"We haven’t had as bad a year for turnover as this since 1993, when the likes of Andrea Jung, Joseph Gromek and Roger Markfield were all making moves," said Elaine Hughes, of executive search firm E.A. Hughes & Co.

At the $600 million Wet Seal, Irv Teitelbaum, chairman who’s also chairman and ceo of Canadian apparel and lingerie chain La Senza, became interim ceo. He had kind words for the departing Bronstein, who joined Wet Seal in 1985 as a merchandise manager, became ceo in 1992, and had a reputation for being a tough, hard-driving, business builder, gobbling up other specialty chains to grow Wet Seal.

Wet Seal really became a national force in 1995, when it purchased and eventually converted 245 Contempo Casual stores. It also acquired 78 Britches stores in 1999, and 18 Zutopia stores in 2001, and launched the Arden B. division in 1998.The Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based chain specializes in contemporary apparel and accessories, and operates 476 Wet Seal stores, 100 Arden B. stores and 30 Zutopia stores.

But comparable-store sales have recently been in the negative zone, while competitors Hot Topic, Pacific Sunwear, American Eagle and Abercrombie& Fitch have posted gains. Wet Seal’s stock price has fallen from about $25 last spring, to under $10 this year. On Thursday’s announcements on Bronstein and slumping comp sales Wet Seal lost another 13 percent, falling to $7.34 on the Nasdaq. Wet Seal’s troubles, sources said, stem as much from the poor economy and over-stored teen retail sector, as from poor merchandising execution.Still, Teitelbaum wanted Bronstein to go out on a good note. "As a visionary in the world of young women’s ready-to-wear fashion, Kathy has led the company to a position of impressive growth and achievement," he said in a statement.

So far this year, Beth Pritchard left as ceo of Bath& Body Works; former Gap ceo Millard Drexler joined J. Crew as chairman and ceo, succeeding Emily Woods and Ken Pilot, respectively; Penney’s named Lana Cain Krauter as executive vice president and general merchandise manager for men’s and children’s, succeeding William Cappiello; Talbots promoted Ken Bosworth to executive vice president and chief merchandising officer, ousting H. Jim Metscher; Kim Roy was forced out at Ann Taylor, with chairman and ceo J. Patrick Spainhour taking control, and Rob Gruen departed Parisian, with George Jones, ceo of the parent Saks Inc. taking control.

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