Nearly six months into its search for a chief executive, Gap (GPS) - Get Report has come up empty-handed.

The San Francisco-based apparel seller began the hunt in late January after Paul Pressler was forced out as CEO. For Wall Street, the time lapse is a distraction as investors look for signs of a turnaround at the company, which has been wallowing in a sales slump for three years.

Gap, which in addition to its namesake chain also operates Old Navy and Banana Republic, wants someone with deep retailing experience

-- unlike Pressler, who came from


(DIS) - Get Report

. But the field of candidates with that sort of industry background is limited, and Gap seems to be in no rush to make a decision.

"We haven't specified the timing other than to say we'd like to do it as soon as we can," says spokesman Greg Rossiter.

Bob Fisher, son of company founders Don and Doris Fisher, has been running the business, although he says he has no plans to stay on permanently. Since taking the helm, Fisher has made a number of changes, including the closure of Forth & Towne, a chain Pressler launched for women 35 and older. He has also snuffed out several of Pressler's appointments, such as Gap brand division president Cynthia Harriss.

Fisher promoted longtime veteran Marka Hansen, who had headed up the company's most successful division, Banana Republic, to replace Harriss. He named another veteran, Gary Muto, to serve as president of Gap Adult and gapbody. Yet he has been unable to find the right match for CEO.

Want more? Check out TV video.Farnoosh Torabi takes a look at Gap's CEO issues.

"We know this type of search can take time and it remains a top priority for the board," he said during a conference call in May. "In the meantime, I remain fully engaged in my role and am working with the executive team in executing our priorities."

The length of the search has surpassed the time needed for the company's last CEO hunt. In 2002, it took Gap four months to find Pressler as a replacement for outgoing CEO Mickey Drexler, who now heads

J. Crew


. To be fair, Gap did widen its range in that search beyond the retail industry.

In March, Gap's board of directors tapped executive search firm Egon Zehnder International to narrow the list of CEO candidates. But some wonder why they haven't moved faster, given the growing impatience on Wall Street for the retailer to improve performance.

Shares of the company closed Monday at $18.96 -- right around where they were at the time of Pressler's departure. The stock has ranged between $15.91 and $21.39 in the last year, a steep decline from the peak of $76.62 in 1999. Same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, have either declined or been flat in all but three months in the last three years.

Gap's profit in its most recent quarter plunged 26%. Revenue grew by 3.5%, but same-store sales -- considered a more accurate barometer of a retailer's health -- fell 4%.

Howard Davidowitz, chairman of retail consulting and investment banking firm Davidowitz & Associates, theorizes that Fisher might be trying to stabilize Gap in order to make it more enticing for someone to come in and take the reins.


Fisher wanted to understand in depth the problems or they would have had someone by now," Davidowitz says. "He knows they don't have an option for another mistake -- it'll be over."

Fisher has slowed Gap's expansion, closed a distribution center and trimmed its workforce. He has also redefined the target audience for the Gap division, skewing it older so as not to compete head-on with the likes of

Abercrombie & Fitch

(ANF) - Get Report


American Eagle

(AEO) - Get Report

-- both of which have trounced Gap in the teen category.

Christine Chen, an analyst with Needham and Co., says some people inside Gap secretly hope that Fisher will stay on as CEO. A familiar face among employees, Fisher has served in various capacities at the company for nearly 30 years, including serving as Gap brand president in 1997 and chief operating officer in 1995. But he has never stayed in any one position for long.

Fisher has already ruled out the possibility of staying on as CEO, and Rossiter says Gap will go outside the company for a replacement. Chen, however, believes that few executives with the retail experience that Gap requires would be willing to leave their current positions.

Such names as Roger Farah, president and chief operating officer of

Polo Ralph Lauren

(RL) - Get Report

, have been bounced around, but Chen doubts he will quit his job when his company is doing so well.

Vanessa Castagna, who had been instrumental in the turnaround of

J.C. Penney

(JCP) - Get Report

but was passed over for CEO, is one possible contender still standing on the sidelines. Castagna stepped down as chairman of


earlier this year and hasn't yet signed on with another big-name retailer.

Regardless of who is ultimately picked, the future of Fisher's recent appointments is uncertain. A new CEO might opt to clear the slate and bring on his or her own team, as Pressler did when he replaced Drexler.

But Davidowitz says Fisher may press for someone who will preserve his changes. And he may get his way, considering the fact that his family owns about 34% of the company's stock.

"The new guy can't do anything that displeases them," Davidowitz says. "They're not going to hire a guy who's going to do whatever he wants."

If, however, the new CEO manages to turn Gap around, he or she might wind up with far more freedom.